THE EARLY BIRD

The early bird catches the moon. And the worm. And a robin. And five swans a-flying. And other sights and delights.

As I raised the kitchen blind, my attention was caught by a pair of blackbirds – up early from their roost – working the back edge of the garden, scuffling through fallen leaves in search of breakfast in damp ground full of juicy worms. Up and down these early birds went, filling up ready for winter.

It was dark when I went out but daylight was on the rise. The moon, slightly off-spherical, was bright, steady, ever-present – a silent reminder of the power of the universe that is beyond human control. Every few seconds the soon-to-be-paling orb was obscured by thin streaks of cloud. I knew the moon was still there and, sure enough, it re-emerged to cast a disdainful look on those clouds.

A robin surprised and delighted with his cheerful reveille from the middle of a bush. The swans, heard before seen, flew towards the rising sun, necks straining forward, wings beating rhythmically. In the fields, away from the rumble and grumble of early morning traffic, I was alone with God and his creation. ‘The world looks very beautiful and full of joy to me’. The words of a song sung at Infants School came into my head. To five year old me it had seemed true, bashed knees and rice pudding aside. But longevity knows better. The reality of so many human lives is less Pollyanna-ish, more Eeyore-ish, inhabiting as we do an often harsh world where darkness, depression, despair can threaten equilibrium.

When the sun and moon of our lives are obscured by cloud, it is special to catch glimpses – however fleeting – of heaven on earth. Night is followed by day.

WEATHER THE WEATHER

Yesterday morning dawned golden and white. An owl hooted in the nearby beech trees. The sun was up in the east and the sky a palate of yellow and purple stripes. The golden glow was repeated in the turning leaves of the beeches. On the ground the grass was covered with a film of white frost, a colour repeated in the trunk of a silver birch. It was a glorious start to the day.

A few hours later it was raining. Tree trunks turned black, and the vivid leaves – still strikingly beautiful – were now against a grey sky. People who’d lingered in bed for a weekend lie-in missed the dawn. They ventured out, in dark coloured hooded coats, negotiating puddle-filled paths under leaden weeping skies and wonky umbrellas.

A stark reminder of the effects of contrasting weather conditions was illustrated by a photo in the newspaper. It showed houses in northern England, surrounded by flood waters, standing in roads that had turned to murky muddy rivers. In the background of the picture was a hillside with bright autumn-leafed trees. Beauty and brokenness side by side. TV pictures showed billowing black clouds above ever-towering and fierce orange flames – a wildfire in Australia. People’s homes were in the foreground.

Like the weather, life has times of calm and times of turbulence, bright spots and dreadful disasters. We learn how compassion, kindness and support are worked out in community. Remember A A Milne’s story “in which Piglet is entirely surrounded by water”? Piglet is rescued by Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear in their improvised boat – an upturned umbrella.

I like November for its contrasts. Whether I like life’s greyness as well as its brightness is debatable, but somehow “we weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” Good and bad times are shared and we celebrate and commiserate with one another as appropriate.

 

THE BEWILDERING WORLD OF WORDS

There will be times, even as an adult reader, when you fail to read a word correctly. The English language can be baffling. For example, why doesn’t nature rhyme with mature? As a child, I thought ‘matured marmalade’ should be pronounced ‘maitchered’ marmalade.

How about ‘capercaillie’? A soft ‘a’ at the beginning or a long ‘A’ sound? The bird’s mating display dance could be described as a bit of a caper, so why not pronounce it as such? Chris Packham on Autumnwatch was teased by his fellow presenters because he pronounced it ‘caper-caillie’.  As a young lad, that’s how he’d read the word in a bird book and the pronunciation stuck. Logical and reasonable.

It’s not just individual words. Sometimes we read a whole sentence wrongly. “God can see through us,” I read. Yep, I thought, true enough. The God who monitors the infinite reaches of the universe, yet notices when an individual sparrow falls to the ground, would know my thoughts, care about my circumstances – and see through me when I pretend to be something I’m not.

God also knew that I had read that sentence incorrectly. It actually said, “God can see us through.” A five-word sentence where two words that had been read the wrong way round gave it a completely different meaning.

However muddled you may be, however you’re feeling, whatever you’re doing, however challenging your day, God can see you through. What a comfort for when your grasp of words is suspect, when you read something incorrectly (words or situations) and are ‘mizzled’ – as my childhood brain thought misled was pronounced.

PS Some autumn pictures are now in the Photo Gallery.

 

OF TIMES AND SEASONS

Fall back. Spring forward. The clocks have changed in the UK and we’re back to Greenwich Mean Time rather than British Summer Time. It’ll be dark at 5 pm instead of 6 pm. Often the clock change comes at the end of the autumn half term. This year it comes at the beginning.

When my children were small I recall them coming home from school after the autumn half term holiday and watching BBC’s Blue Peter before tea. The lights went on, the curtains were closed, and they cosied up on the sofa to watch great exploits, see sticky-backed plastic used for craft, and various pets wreaking havoc in the studio.

Outside the conkers have now all fallen from the horse chestnut trees, beech nuts are crunched underfoot along puddly pavements and the leaves are falling rapidly in the wind and rain of recent days. Children splash through puddles, run to catch falling leaves, swish their wellies through the yellow and orange carpet and birds start eating the glowing berries on shrubs. I like autumn! I like the seasons. Drab grey days may not thrill us but how it makes us appreciate the occasional blue sky day when we see nature at its gloriously colourful best.

We all experience days when metaphorical clouds press down on us and our tears of sorrow, stress or strife sluice down like the storms outside the window. What a relief and blessing it is when those days abate and the sun shines once more – as it is this morning where I live.

“Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning” we read in the Psalms. However long your season of tears may be, there is bright hope for tomorrow.

 

JOURNEY TIME

“Are we nearly there yet?” You set off in the car to go on holiday two hundred miles away and, after ten miles – or maybe even just one mile – a voice pipes up from the back seat, and your heart sinks. How often will the question be asked over the next few hours…?

If you were travelling from New York to Sydney, the reply could be, “In nineteen hours’ time.” That was the non-stop achievement of an aircraft yesterday, setting a precedent for future travel.

In the 19th century it could take four months to go by ship from the UK to Australia; a fast clipper might take two months. After the second world war many people migrated to Australia and the ship’s voyage was the first stage of the adventure and might have taken about five weeks with stopovers in various places en route. The England cricket team travelled by ship to Australia in the mid-20th century. Several weeks before a ball was bowled. Now, in our instant age, we expect travel to be quick, efficient and as easy as possible. We always want to cut times, whether on a journey, in a running race or in something as technological as the speed of our laptops. It was Albert Einstein who said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

I woke this morning and thanked God for the gift of a new day. I don’t know how much time I might have on planet earth. My journey from earth to heaven will be instant when it happens. Preparation for that journey is more important than any journey I make on earth. Do you give as much time to think about that as you do preparing for your next car, train or plane journey?

 

EVEN DARKNESS IS NOT DARK

Snoopy, in Charles Schulz’ Peanuts cartoons, sits on top of his kennel and types, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.

If you live in the south of the UK at the moment you might be forgiven for thinking that not only are the nights dark and stormy but the days too. Rain, relentless rain. By contrast the typhoon that swept Japan’s islands yesterday was swift and short-lived –  though with devastating results.

Perhaps the rain and darkness reflect your feelings at the moment. Are you going through a long dark patch when the metaphorical sun seems hidden above the oppressive blanket of grey? Are life’s circumstances draining you of energy, smiles and hope? Have you had to face a short but very sharp cloudburst that’s devastated you? We know that beyond the glowering clouds in the sky is the sun with its warmth and light which even now shines on Japan after the typhoon.

Through the darkest days and in the dark nights of the soul, we wait for the sun to emerge again. But there is more. What we can see is not all that there is. For the Christian believer, there is hope even in the gloomiest times. In Psalm 139 David comments to God, “Even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are the same to you.” In John’s vision of heaven we read that, for believers, the Lord God will be their light. Meanwhile, God holds onto you in the darkness and through the rain of your tears, empathising with you in your need.

 

THE APPLE TREE

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther

Harvest is for sharing – or so a multitude of creatures seem to believe. The apple harvest this year is abundant. My freezer is stacked with containers of stewed apple, apple cake, toffee apple ice cream. I’ve given away bagloads of fruit, and there is still more fruit to drop off the trees into the laps of the voracious creatures on the ground.

I don’t mind the blackbirds. The sight of a blackbird feasting on a rosy apple is a delight. Not quite so pleasurable on the eye are the many mini-slugs that sniff out the apples that cushion to the grass or batter and splatter themselves onto the patio. Thanks to the monsoon conditions of the last few weeks – including the one-third of an inch of rain that fell overnight last night – slugs are on the slither, ready to crunch their jaws into my apples.

Perhaps the slugs and the hundreds of leather jackets – on the tree, in the apples, on the ground – recognise that the apples are not mine. I didn’t actually plant the tree, I haven’t watered it, talked to it, or done anything to it – other than give it an annual haircut.

I don’t begrudge the little creatures sharing the harvest. Well, not much… I give thanks, not just for apples, but beetroot, carrots, rhubarb, herbs, flowers. ‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. So thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.’ Even for slugs? Yes… Maybe… I’ll try… Probably not.