Quakers

“Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words.” I identify strongly with that outburst of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. As a Baptist minister I come from a culture that is heavily dependent on talking. In a year’s preaching, praying, singing and visiting I must use millions of words and with the best will in the world I can’t pretend that they’re all necessary or helpful.

But it’s August and I’ve got some time off. I’m not taking any services during this month and during the summer break for the last few years I’ve found it’s helpful for me to go the Friends’ Meeting House in Abergavenny on a Sunday morning to sample and enjoy the Quaker way of doing things.

It’s in stark contrast to what I’m used to. Instead of this feeling that every moment of the hour of worship needs to be filled with songs, prayers, ideas and explanations, the Quakers start from silence. It’s not uncommon for there to be whole half hours when no one says anything. And when at length somebody does speak, it’s usually brief and well ordered. This often gives it considerable weight and makes it all the more memorable for that. I can still recall quite a lot of the things I have heard spoken into the silence. Of course, the Friends do far more than just sit without speaking – their reputation for integrity in business, social justice and striving for world peace is second to none.

Opportunities to take stock and maybe seek fresh inspiration are like gold dust in our busy lives. Often in the holiday period we may get the chance to broaden our experience and that can bring fresh strength and faithfulness to our lasting responsibilities. I know that however much I like to dip my toe in I don’t really belong to the Quakers and when I go back to my own church in September, I don’t intend to be standing there in front of the congregation without having plenty of things to say already prepared. I do hope, though, that some of the thoughtfulness and inwardness of the Society of Friends will have rubbed off on me and give some extra depth to the spoken ministry I will bring.

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Flood

This one went out on BBC Radio 2, so the discipline is to include the spiritual in an even more subtle way than on Radio Wales. The Good Samaritan is embedded in this.

I play bass guitar in a new rock n roll group and we’re all still wildly enthusiastic about it. The only problem is, we rehearse in a barn about ten miles from where I live and you need to take some pretty narrow and remote country roads to get there.

One evening we were going to practise but it had been raining hard for several days and there were flood warnings out all over Britain. My wife told me to have the night off but my fellow band members and I were adamant – we were all going to turn up no matter what.

My friend Richard is the lead guitarist and it was his turn to drive and we got about three miles out of the village, hit a wall of water and his engine died. We had no option but to climb out into about two feet of water and push the car off the road.

I’m with one of these roadside rescue organisations and they were quite happy to help me but because of the conditions everywhere there was a three hour wait. So Richard phoned our village and arranged for a friend with a truck to come and tow him back.

In the meantime, another car came along the road and killed his engine in the flood. It turned out to be someone I vaguely knew – Mike, a friend of my daughter’s from school. He didn’t know what to do in these circumstances and I felt really sorry for him.

This was my dilemma: I could either go back home straight away with Richard and his friend’s tow truck or stay with Mike and wait for the roadside rescue people to answer my distress call on his behalf because you need to be with the vehicle.

What came to my mind was that story in the Bible about the man who was mugged and left for dead and how nobody would stop to help him except a Samaritan – a man everyone else despised. On the back of that, I decided to stay with Mike.

My feet were cold and wet for all of three hours but we had a good talk about the old days and when I got home I realised that I had a great feeling from having done something to help that I didn’t really have to do if I didn’t want to.

Now all I need to do is cope with my smug, self-satisfied, proud attitude problem!

Olympic torch

This one is connected with the Olympics in London in 2012 but because it’s Olympics year again, I thought I’d share it.

It’s getting nearer. Yesterday it was in Bristol and Bath. Today’s it’s in Cheltenham and tomorrow in Worcester. On Friday it comes to Wales for four days and then it’ll be gone, perhaps for ever. This may be your last chance to turn out and see it.

I’m talking about the Olympic torch relay. This spectacle has been planned as a big celebration of Britain in advance of the summer games and Wales certainly hasn’t been forgotten. As well as visiting the cities of Bangor, Cardiff, Newport and Swansea the torch will ride on an RNLI lifeboat along the Menai strait and bump along on the back of a cob horse in Aberaeron. It will be hauled up Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth by cliff railway and reach the heights of Snowdon in a narrow gauge train.

But the journey of the Olympic torch is not just a celebration of famous places; it is also a recognition of ordinary people with extraordinary stories. Two hundred people have the great privilege of carrying the torch during its journey around Wales and many of them have inspiring tales to tell of hope in adversity or dedicated community service. To read through the stories on the Olympic Torch website is to be humbled and astonished by the runners’ single-mindedness and fortitude in overcoming significant obstacles to get where they are today. One of my favourites tells of an elderly lady who completed a sponsored marathon by walking round and round her local village hall.

Of course, there are the nay-sayers who see it all as the government trying to raise people’s spirits or who take great pleasure in pointing out that the torch relay was used as propaganda to great effect by Nazi Germany. So what? That doesn’t call the whole thing into question. Unfortunate associations don’t rule out all the positives including the way people are already being drawn together to celebrate the way the human spirit can overcome adversity. In the Bible, God says, “I am doing a new thing!” and more often than not he decides to take a set of existing circumstances with not much promise and filling them with new and exciting possibilities.

And this is a dynamic we will hear repeated wherever the Olympic torch goes. A lady who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer heard one of the Welsh torch runners speak and commented, “I never thought life could be like this again .. it`s absolutely inspirational”. That’s the Spirit!

The Royal Welsh Show

Several times, I’ve had the opportunity to go to the Royal Welsh Show near Builth Wells and it’s always a treat to get a free field ticket and wander around the stalls and look at the animals. It is a bit of a challenge to find something new to say, though, because usually the brief is to celebrate Welsh rural life – something I don’t really know much about.

Coming here to the Royal Welsh Show is like having access to a time machine.

The best of the past is all around us with celebrated families and farms still using some of the traditional methods. One of my favourite events every time I come here is the sheep shearing where I admire the young bloods doing so well what their forefathers did before them for generations.

As for the present, despite the challenges of modern day farming, the Show is a tremendous celebration of all that is good about Welsh country life today. For many who come here this is an annual highlight when there is a chance not only to compete but also to compare and to see what best practice is these days. To get up to date with the latest way of doing things and where possible to take ideas and equipment back home to put them into practice.

What of the future? On my first visit here some years back I went home with a couple of low-energy light bulbs they had been giving away as free samples. I’d never seen anything like them before but pretty soon they were everywhere. The Royal Welsh Show is a place to wander round the stands and imagine the future as some of the best minds in Wales show their wares and invite us to buy into their vision.

This is especially true about the Green issues that are such a pressing concern for many of us. This time last year the Prime Minister, David Cameron came here and unveiled plans for a multi-million pound scheme to develop initiatives to solve agricultural problems. Some of that money is at work now in Wales improving bread products for diabetics or working to decrease food waste by the control of fruit flies in Asia and Africa. Welsh plant scientists are working with that funding to develop rice crops more resistant to major diseases. But there is still so much more to be done.

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” This is what God said to Adam and Eve while they were still trusted to look after the Garden of Eden in the Bible book of Genesis. It is not a mandate to exploit and despoil the globe but instead it’s an invitation to good stewardship of the creation. Here at the Royal Welsh Show we can see how our forebears looked after their world and we can admire how our contemporaries are getting on with the same task. With a bit of imagination, perhaps we can begin to discern how things will be done by generations yet to be born. Even if we are not involved in agriculture ourselves, maybe we can adopt some of those practices right now.

Another Calais Jungle piece

Unfortunately, this Wednesday Word from early in 2016 is still very topical because today all the talk in France is about dismantling the Calais Jungle once and for all. But where will the people go?

You may remember that just before Christmas I spoke on Wednesday Word about a visit I made to the refugee camp in Calais. Well, on the weekend I went for a second time, again with a friend and a car load of clothes and food kindly donated by people in my church and the Raglan community.

In an attempt to organise what’s become known as “The Jungle”, large parts of it have been bulldozed, leaving an expanse of wasteland as big as several football pitches. A makeshift shack that serves as a mosque sits incongruously in the middle. The authorities weren’t allowed to demolish that particular structure. When all else has been lost, very often religious faith remains and it’s good to see it respected.

One result of the demolition work means the people there have much less space than before. The Sudanese friends we made previously are still in their little encampment but there are many more similar groupings, based on country of origin, in even closer proximity than before. And we saw rows of White shipping containers – cold, impersonal and regimented – surrounded by a daunting security fence where people sleep six to a room on bunkbeds.

On this visit we went further into the Jungle and spent time with a group of Iranians, singing with them – a few Christian songs as well as popular stuff like ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Take me home, country roads.’ I think I know now what a medieval town must have looked like. Tramping feet have established main thoroughfares among the shanties and tents, where rudimentary shops have been hammered together from random bits of wood.

It’s one thing to see all this in the media but quite another to look at it close up. This came home to me forcibly while a group of men were rummaging around in the boot, looking for shoes especially. One of them, an Iranian, turned to me and said, ‘One humanity; different destiny’.

How right he was. I’m back in Wales with my family and my safe, settled community and my hot and cold running water. The news cycle moves on, what with the effort to save jobs in Port Talbot, the revelations about tax havens and now the enforced return of some refugee seekers from Greece to Turkey. Governments need the wisdom of Solomon in these times!

Unlike me, my Iranian friend has had to flee persecution because of his Christian faith and is in the exile of a camp which for all the daytime conviviality is still a dangerous place. Yet, we are connected. I should have known that already. After all, the Bible tells us that God has made from one blood all nations of humankind.

Selma

It’s worth pointing out again that these talks are not meant to be the last word on any subject but are aiming to be a seed thought in the middle of a general chat and music show.

For some while now my observation of the world has made me feel that we are living in increasingly troubled times – what with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and what’s been going on in Ukraine and Nigeria, not to mention the ebola crisis. So I was astonished when one of my church members who is very astute about these things sent me an article from a reputable newspaper that demonstrates in black and white that in fact things are getting better – there are actually fewer wars at the moment and fewer civilians, women and children being killed and injured.

I was forced to think again and I came to the conclusion that what has changed is the increasing visibility and horror of what is being done, often in the name of religion. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris were incredibly traumatic for France and for the world even though a comparatively small number of people were killed – and I say that without minimising the enormity of what was done in Paris. Similarly, pictures and videos of the hostage outrages in the Middle East are enough to chill the most optimistic heart.

What can we do? Well, I think there’s an important signpost in one of the films which has just hit our screens but which controversially wasn’t nominated for one of those BAFTA awards much in the news at the moment. Benedict Cumberbatch said of the actor who plays Martin Luther King in the movie Selma, ‘I wish David Oyelowo was here tonight. I don’t understand it. He would have got my vote.’

Quite apart from the brilliant performance of the lead player, I think this is a vital film for our times. The story is a familiar one but no less important for that. Doctor King was the leader of a movement that refused to use violence to confront the evil of racial segregation and won the day even though there is still much injustice to be overcome. Of course, it cost King himself his life.

Naturally, it isn’t given to many of us to head up a movement like that and we may think our actions are insignificant. We also need to grapple with the notion that sometimes war may be justified. We can be uncomfortably aware that even the best of us – even people like Martin Luther King – often have serious flaws as people. All the same, when faced with the evils of our day I think we must all have a basic commitment to a principle that comes to us from the Bible and is perfectly illustrated in Selma: ‘Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.’

Muhammad Ali

I don’t remember a time when we have had to say goodbye to so many people who were true giants in their field. Perhaps the biggest loss of all has been Muhammad Ali – the greatest.

I’m not much of a boxing fan but he was simply always there when I was growing up in news stories impossible to ignore like his bout with the Englishman Henry Cooper, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ when he fought George Foreman and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ where his opponent was Smokin Joe Frazier. As a television personality through his numerous appearances as a chat show guest , he was surely second to none and I remember being entertained by him many times in this role during my teenage years before the cruel decline in his health took him all too soon out of the public eye.

I must admit, though, that for all my memories of Ali as news item, raconteur and wit, I had underestimated the profound content of what he actually said in his interviews. The obituaries have made up for that and they bear eloquent witness to the fact that before the vast majority of his compatriots he was using his fame from the start as a platform to campaign against war and in favour of the equality of the races. He was ready to face abuse, the removal of his titles and even arrest for the sake of beliefs for which in those dangerous days many gave their lives.

Naturally, as a Christian, I am disappointed that Ali was put off my own variety of faith as a youngster even though he regularly attended a Baptist church during his formative years. He was upset that the Jesus portrayed in this setting was a blue-eyed white man while according to his own account of the process, even a holy picture including some black angels might have made a difference and made him feel included in the gospel story. Maybe I need to learn from that to question my own way of sharing what I believe.

In 1965, he converted to Islam, taking the Muslim name Muhammad Ali in place of what he thought of as his ‘slave name’, Cassius Clay. However, his funeral service in Louisville will be an inter-faith one, emphasising his mighty stature as a humanitarian and his humility as a man of God. As Ali himself put it, “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths.” Amen to that.

On Saturday, the Welsh football team begins its campaign in the UEFA European Championship in France. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of another amazing sporting story that resonates into the far future. After all, even though Muhammad Ali died as a giant of the last century, he began his career as the little guy and had to fight against the odds in sport and in life to achieve all he did.

Calais Jungle

This year I’ve been able to make four trips to the Calais Jungle and I’ve had the chance to reflect on these visits on a couple of occasions on the radio. This is the first of those talks given not to try to influence the debate but to raise awareness.

It’s been shocking weather for some people and we’ve seen images of people having to abandon their homes in Cumbria and seek shelter elsewhere. Well, the weekend before last a friend and I made a trip to Calais to take food and clothes to other people who’ve had to abandon their homes. Quite a few people in our village have been concerned about the plight of the refugees and when I made an appeal for supplies the response was immediate and enthusiastic.

It so happens that I have some American friends working in a church in Boulogne and they go into the camp every week to meet with a group of nine or ten Sudanese people fleeing what amounts to a genocide in Darfur.

So on the Saturday morning we loaded up with bin bags full of jumpers, jeans, coats, shoes, socks and gloves, rice and cooking oil and were soon edging our way through the police cordons to the outskirts of the camp where six thousand people live in quite squalid conditions. It was sunny as our new friends, full of smiles and hugs came to meet us with a shopping trolley. The bright weather meant the atmosphere was happy with plenty of people playing football and children riding bikes but the same afternoon the torrential rain and winds spread the puddles into a muddy morass.

It has long been my experience that the most generous people are often those who have the fewest of this world’s goods. There is a meeting tent in this part of the encampment and it was a moving experience to share a meal prepared by the refugees and to sing with them. It’s the first time I’ve played a twelve string guitar with only five strings but the music was sweet.

Opinions will differ about what should happen to the Calais camps. There is no doubt that the conditions are insanitary and the place is unsightly. Some of those living there are in the process of applying for asylum in France while others take tremendous risks trying to reach Britain. Just after I came back, I heard that a Sudanese boy we had met had been killed on the motorway trying to reach Britain.

Our American friends have found it impossible to ignore this need on their own doorstep. For my part, I consider that Calais is on my doorstep too and that’s why I’m planning another trip in the spring. Tomorrow is a National Day of Prayer for Refugees in honour of Human Rights Day. That’s great, but there needs to be action, too. The Bible says, ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If you say to him, “Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed” but do nothing, what good is it?’ That’s a great question.

David Bowie

As the script suggests, I got the call to give this talk on the Monday morning we heard about Bowie’s death. The drill for giving these ‘Wednesday Words’ is that the producer phones on Monday and talks through ideas which are then written up through Tuesday so that the final version is agreed in plenty of time. It was felt that with my musical background I’d have something to say about this towering figure so they called me and I was delighted to have the opportunity to reflect on his influence.

Only last Friday we were celebrating the 69th birthday of the legendary musician David Bowie and the release of a new album, Blackstar. But early on Monday morning came the shocking news of his death followed by a remarkable outpouring of grief, respect and admiration from people of all ages and backgrounds.

Listening to politicians and personalities as well as my own friends, what has struck me most of all is the sheer diversity of people’s reactions to this event and I think this bears witness to the tremendous breadth of Bowie’s musical and creative innovations and achievements.

I’m old enough to remember the strangeness and mystery of his first hit Space Oddity in 1969 and the outrage of my parents at his Ziggy Stardust persona in the early 1970s. Tonight, I’m rehearsing in a new band with a lady who worked with David Bowie in one of his videos. I know that the experience changed Penny’s life and she is inconsolable.

Listening to his final album in the light of his death it seems to me that Bowie was thinking as he made it of his imminent departure from this world. It is musically at the cutting edge but lyrically it is open in dealing with spiritual themes like despair, fear of the future and perhaps the hope of breaking out of the physical torment of cancer. One of the songs is called Lazarus – a reference to the biblical character raised from the dead by Jesus – and it includes the lines, ‘Look at me, I’m up in heaven. You know, I’ll be free.’ It is written as it were from beyond the grave.

Bowie is on record as having explored many religious traditions including Buddhism and Christianity – a 2003 interview suggests that he was not quite prepared to call himself an atheist. His influence on spiritual people is clear, though. The archbishop of Canterbury spoke of listening endlessly to his albums in his youth while at least one cathedral organist has chosen to play his music in services over the last couple of days.

Not everyone has an opportunity to think about leaving a legacy in the way David Bowie did and to make a statement about it as a work of art. But maybe we can all imitate Bowie in embracing new challenges and exploring our potential in all areas of our lives. Perhaps then we will be able to leave this life fulfilled.

And I’d like to finish with a tribute from, of all people, a Roman Catholic Cardinal – Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, who tweeted lyrics from Space Oddity: ‘Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown, engines on. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.’

Talking at the BBC

When I came back home to Wales in 2002, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the BBC in Cardiff to take part in a discussion programme about the European Union. I’d had a bit of broadcasting experience in France so I was excited to have the opportunity to go on with this.

Since then, I have been asked to contribute regularly a short item called ‘Wednesday Word’ in a BBC Radio Wales general chat and music show presented first by Roy Noble, then by Louise Elliot and now Eleri Sion.

The brief is to speak for about two and a half minutes on an interesting topic – perhaps an anniversary or a personal experience or an event in the news – and bring in a spiritual dimension in a way casual listeners can relate with. Maybe people will think the content of the talks is pretty light but they should remember the nature of the programme: this is not a sermon.

It’s a surprisingly exacting discipline to come up with those 450 words and the training given by the producers is invaluable because they teach you how to stick to one theme with no digression possible in such a short space. I’m particularly grateful to Karen Walker for friendship and guidance over many years.

I have also contributed quite a large number of scripts to the BBC Radio 2 slot ‘Pause for Thought’ although, interestingly, audience feedback has been far less common in spite of a much bigger pool of listeners. BBC Radio Wales is true local radio for the Principality and many people in communities up and down the country tune in for companionship. As I walk around the village after one of these broadcasts I sometimes get the impression that the whole place has Radio Wales on in the background all the time!

Over the years, I’ve spoken a number of times from the field at the Royal Welsh Show with Roy Noble, Eleri Sion and Wynne Evans and on a memorable occasion gave the Christmas message at the BBC Christmas service recorded at the St David’s Hall in Cardiff. A few times the outside broadcast team came to our chapel in Raglan to record a couple of services to go out on a Sunday morning.

All in all, this has been a good sideline in ministry and I’m always happy to get the call – ‘Rob, are you able to do the “Wednesday Word”, this week’?

Please read on to see the first example of one of these talks, about David Bowie.