‘Is God On Our Side?’ (a sermon for Sept. 30th on Psalm 124)

Have any of you read Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Patriot Games’? Or maybe seen the 1992 Harrison Ford movie based on the book?

Tom Clancy took the title of his book from a song by an Irish singer-songwriter and political activist called Dominic Behan. It was called ‘The Patriot Game’, and it tells the story of the death of a man called Fergal O’Hanlon in an IRA raid on a police barracks on January 1st1957. A few years later Bob Dylan ripped off the tune, stole the theme, and wrote his own song around it, ‘With God on our Side’. It highlights how in wartime we always assume that our cause is just and that God – if there is a God – is our ally. It goes through the Indian wars, the American civil war, the Spanish-American war, and the two great world wars of the twentieth century, and it ends up in 1963:

I’ve learned to hate Russians all through my whole life
If another war starts it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them to run and to hide
And accept it all bravely with God on my side

But now we got weapons of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must
One push of the button and a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions when God’s on your side

I couldn’t help thinking of this song as I read the first three verses of our psalm for today, Psalm 124. In our BAS version they read as follows:

      If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say;
If the Lord had not been on our side,
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive,
in their fierce anger toward us.

Words like these sound alarm bells in our minds. We live in a time when religious fanatics fly aircraft into tall buildings, killing thousands of innocent people, in the assurance that they’re doing God’s will and carrying out his judgement on the Great Satan. In response, we’ve seen soldiers sent off to fight wars in foreign lands with the speeches of politicians ringing in their ears, assuring them that right was on their side and God’s blessing was on them. Going back a little further, I’ve visited many churches in the country of my birth and seen war memorials up on the walls, with the names of those killed in the Great War and the Second World War, under the heading ‘For God and for Country’.

But that phrase wears a little thin after a while. I know my country sent off its young men in the hundreds of thousands, and at home their moms and dads and wives and children were all praying desperately that God would save their loved ones from death and bring them safely home. But of course, on the other side moms and dads and wives and children were praying exactly the same prayers for their own precious loved ones. How would God sort out those prayers?

With these questions in our minds, it can be a shock to us to come to the words of our psalm for today, claiming that ‘the Lord was on our side’. It reminds us of the many, many times when armies have gone on wars of conquest in the name of God. Can we still use this psalm today? After all, we claim to follow Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. So is this psalm still relevant for us, and can it somehow help us in our prayers?

Let’s step back for a minute and remind ourselves of what exactly the book of Psalms is all about. My Old Testament professor in college used to say, ‘The rest of the Bible speaks tous, but the psalms speak forus’. The rest of the Bible gives us stories and sermons, laws and prophecies, gospels and visions, all addressed to us in the name of God. But the Psalter is different; it’s a hymn book, a book of prayers. We can use those prayers in one of two ways; we can pray them ‘as is’ – as we do in church every week – or we can use them as a model for our own prayers.

If you read the psalms you’ll see they really do cover every situation of life. If you’re rejoicing over the birth of a child or celebrating a royal wedding, there’s a psalm for that. If you’re full of bitterness because a friend has let you down, or you’re blind with rage because your city has just been destroyed by a foreign army, there’s a psalm for that too. If you’re full of wonder at the night sky or the variety of God’s natural creation – if you’re desperate with fear at impending danger, or delirious with joy at a miraculous deliverance – if you’re old and close to death – if you feel guilty for your sins – in all these situations and many more, you can find a prayer in the book of Psalms that speaks for you.

But it’s important to remember this: the psalms aren’t meant to teach us accurate theology or Christian moral principles. That’s not what they are. They’re poetry, and they obey the conventions of poetic speech, not theological textbooks or lists of commandments. If we approach them looking for ethical guidance we can sometimes get into real trouble.

Let me give you an example. Psalm 137 was written by Israelites who’d been dragged away from their homeland into captivity. Fresh in their mind was the awful experience of seeing their city destroyed by the enemy army. First had come the siege and all its privations: the hunger, the thirst, the growing fear and desperation. Then the enemy army had broken through the wall, and there followed the sack of the city – houses looted and burned, soldiers killed, women raped, children slaughtered, and a remnant taken away as prisoners to a foreign land. There they sat down by the river and wept, remembering their loved ones who had been slaughtered and their beautiful city that had been destroyed. And so they said,

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137:1-3 BAS)

Did they pray that God would help them forgive their enemies? They did not. They were not afraid to pray exactly what was on their hearts, and so the end of the psalm goes like this:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock! (vv.8-9 BAS).

As Christians we might find ourselves asking, “Why is this in the Bible?” And the answer is, it’s in the Bible to teach us to tell the truth when we pray. There’s no point praying prayers full of sweetness and light when what’s really inside us is hatred and rage. There’s no point praying prayers telling God that we love to do his will when really we’re angry with God and the last thing we want to do is the thing he’s calling us to. Why would we lie to God? What’s the point, when he knows everything about us?

Psalms like this encourage us to share every part of our life with God. Every experience, every emotion, can become part of our prayer life. And once it’s acknowledged, then we can look at it in the cool light of day – and in the light of the teachings of Jesus – and ask ourselves, “Is this something I need to grow out of? Is this something I need to repent of?” But as long as we don’t pray about it – as long as we pretend it’s not there – that growth can never happen.

So let’s go back to our psalm for today – a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of Israel from their enemies. We would love to know what the situation was that first prompted this psalm to be written, but the truth is that we just don’t know that. What isclear is that it was a time of great trouble for Israel. Israel was the underdog, in a position of weakness, and in real danger of being destroyed. The writer of the psalm is a true poet and uses no less than four poetic images to describe this. First he sees the enemy as some sort of monster who would have eaten them up: ‘Then would they have swallowed us up alive in their fierce anger toward us’ (v.3). Secondly he uses flood imagery: ‘Then would the waters have overwhelmed us and the torrent gone over us’ (v.4). Third, he sees the enemy as a wild animal with sharp teeth: ‘Blessed be the Lord! He has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth’ (v.6). Fourthly, he uses the image of a hunter setting a trap to catch birds: ‘We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped’ (v.7).

This is not an army going out in a war of conquest against its enemies. This is not a prayer prayed by terrorists about to murder innocent people. This is the prayer of the people of a small city somehow miraculously delivered from an enemy of overwhelming strength. It seemed as if their fate was sealed – burning, looting, rape, killing, captivity – but against all odds, they were delivered. And their instinctive response was to cry out to God in thanksgiving. We understand that, because we do the same thing. How many times have you heard someone say, “Someone must have been looking out for me today”? That’s not a sophisticated theological statement; it’s the natural response of a heart full of relief and gratitude.

Can we use this psalm today? I believe we can.

Who is our real enemy? Part of the genius of Jesus was that he redefined who the enemy really was. Jesus taught that our most dangerous enemies aren’t foreign armies, but the evil and sin that infect all of us. The line between good and evil isn’t black and white; there’s good and evil in all of us, and from time to time we’ve all felt the sense of failure to overcome our own inner demons. How many times have you met addicts who just can’t seem to get free from the overwhelming desire to drink or do drugs? How many people do you know who struggle to control a bad temper, or realize their greed is destroying their marriage? Every day, in a hundred different ways, my sins trip me up and hold me back from achieving God’s dream for me. Every day I see the power of evil in the world – not just in the bad guys, but in the good guys too.

Jesus knew this could only be changed by the love and power of God coming into us, bringing forgiveness and a power greater than our own. That’s why he went to the Cross to demonstrate God’s forgiveness for the whole world.  That’s why he sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him. If the Lord had not been on our side there would have been no escape from the power of evil and sin, but now we know, because of the resurrection of Jesus, that evil won’t have the last word. And now we know, because we’ve received the Holy Spirit, that even now we have access to a power greater than our own to help us become the people we need to be.

I can’t give you three infallible steps to experiencing that help. God isn’t some sort of cosmic slot machine – put in the right coin, and out pops the desired answer! Jesus taught us that God is the Father who loves us, and good parents don’t usually require their kids to use some specific magical formula of words before they’ll help them. Rather, good parents teach their kids to trust them and not be afraid to ask for help. So if you’re facing a situation that seems too big for you to handle, this psalm encourages you to acknowledge that, but also to remember that it’s nottoo big for Godto handle. So bring it to him. Cry to him for help. Ask his guidance and direction and commit yourself to following the answers you get.

Let’s be clear: we won’t always experience dramatic deliverance. We see that in the area of physical healing; some are healed and some are not, and sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. But what we willexperience is the presence of God and the love of God supporting us in our time of need. Another psalm, 46, uses dramatic poetic imagery to describe a time of trouble and to point to the help that comes from God:

‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…

The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold (Psalm 46:1-3, 7 BAS).

Note that the writer of the psalm doesn’t claim that the help of the Lord caused the earth to stopshaking or the mountains notto fall. What he says is that even though those things happen, he won’t be afraid, because the Lord is with him as a place of refuge.

Our psalm for today, 124, ends with these words: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘Someone is looking out for us’; someone is helping us deal with stuff we would never have been able to deal with on our own. If the Lord had not been on our side, evil and sin would have overwhelmed us, but God is rescuing us from their power day by day. So when we are in the thick of it, let’s remember these words and draw strength from them: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. ‘The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.’

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True Wisdom (a sermon for Sept. 23rd on James 3.13 – 4.10)

My old friend Ken Burningham spent many years working with First Nations people in northern Saskatchewan, and over the years he rubbed shoulders with a lot of folk in leadership positions in the various Cree reserves. He said something to me once that has stuck with me through the years. He said, “When I first started out I knew a lot of older chiefs who had a lot of wisdom, but not much knowledge. Now I know a lot of younger chiefs, who have a lot of knowledge, but not much wisdom”.

That really resonated with me. We know instinctively that there’s a difference, don’t we? Knowledge is not a bad thing, but by itself it’s not enough. Knowledge can be used for good or for evil. After all, Adolf Hitler had some very knowledgeable people working for him. But in order to live well in this world you need more than knowledge. You need to know the best courses of action to take when life throws things at you. You need to know what’s important and what’s not important. You need to know who created you, and what you were created for. In other words, you need true wisdom.

In our epistle for today James returns to the subject of wisdom, which he’s already mentioned earlier in his letter. He talks in verse 13 about the person who is ‘wise and understanding’, and a few verses later he contrasts ‘earthly wisdom’ with ‘the wisdom from above’.

But before we dive into these verses, let’s remind ourselves that James isn’t the first person in the Bible to think and write about wisdom. The Old Testament has a whole genre of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – books that gather together wise sayings to guide people in the art of practical godly living. In these books there’s general agreement about where wisdom starts: Proverbs 1:7 says ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. This isn’t talking about fear in the sense of terror; it’s talking about having a proper reverence and awe for the God who made us. It’s encouraging us to remember that the relationship between us and God isn’t an equal one. God is infinitely good and holy and powerful, but we’re not; we’re God’s creations, and our understanding and wisdom are limited. True wisdom comes from the Lord, and we need to go to him in humility to learn the best path through life.

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an abstract intellectual concept; it’s not something we learn in coffee shop conversations about ‘the meaning of life’. Rather, it’s about discovering the kind of life God designed us for, and learning to live it out in the midst of our ordinary daily occupations.  It’s about actions, not just words or thoughts. Think of Jesus’ well-known story of the wise and foolish builders. The wise man, who built his house on the rock, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and actson them’ (Matthew 7:24), but the foolish man, who built his house on the sand, represents the one ‘who hears these words of mine and does not acton them’ (v.26). So wisdom means hearing the words of Jesus and putting them into practice in our daily lives.

This godly wisdom is essentially humble.It means acknowledging that we don’t have the ability in ourselves to choose the wise path, so we need to ask God to teach us true wisdom. Christians believe that God has come to us supremely in Jesus, so we expect that in the life and teaching of Jesus we’ll find the clearest and most accurate embodiment of the wisdom of God. After all, as Christians we surely believe that Jesus was at the very least the wisest man who ever lived, so following him means looking to him for the wisdom we need in our daily lives. We listen to his voice, and we put in into practice.

But there’s another voice out there, a rebellious voice. We first run into it in the third chapter of Genesiswhere we meet the snake, who tempts the man and the woman to follow their own path rather than the one God sets out for them. The snake contradicts God’s instructions to the man and the woman. He says, ‘God knows that when you eat of (the fruit of the tree) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). The next words are very revealing: ‘So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate’ (Genesis 3:6).

The woman saw ‘that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’. Here we have a different path to wisdom; the snake says, “There’s something good that God could have given you, but he’s chosen to hold it back from you. The only way to get it is for you to strike out on your own, reject God’s guidance and find your own path through life. If you do that, you’ll become as wise as God and you won’t need to keep asking him what to do”. This is the way of pride and arrogance, when we say to God, ‘Your way sounds interesting, but I don’t think it’ll work in the real world, will it?” As if the human race has a great track record of making things work in the real world!

So this is the biblical conversation James is stepping into in today’s reading, and he clearly spells out these two kinds of wisdom. In verse 13 he says,

‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’.

He goes on in verses 17-18 to describe what heavenly wisdom looks like:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

But earthly wisdom is entirely different; look at verses 14-16:

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

This is what we might call ‘worldly wisdom’, the wisdom that knows how to look out for itself and ignores everyone else. This is the person who knows how to play the game of life so that they get the best parts and everyone else gets the leftovers. The essential characteristic of this so-called wisdom is selfishness and self-centredness:a person who has this devilish wisdom is entirely absorbed in their own interests and cares nothing for the interests of others.

Is this likely to produce peace? Of course not. If we want true true peace we have to develop a genuine concern for the well-being of others. If we grow a world where everyone thinks only of themselves, this is inevitably going to bring people into conflict with each other. You want that patch of land? So do I. You want that pot of money? So do I. You want that spot in the centre of the stage? So do I.

And we all know where that leads. Look at chapter 4 verses 1-3:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Are you surprised that James addresses these words to Christians? Do we really expect Christians to murder people when they don’t get what they want? Sadly, one look around the world today will tell us that this happens more often than we’d like to believe. But even when it isn’t literallytrue, most of us have probably experienced church life that feelslike a war zone. Don’t we all want a church that caters to our own needs and desires? And when someone proposes a change, isn’t our first thought “How is this going to affect me?” When you get a whole church full of people who feel that way, it’s not surprising that there’s often conflict.

What’s the way out? James would tell us that we need to remember that God is God and we are not, so we need to step down from the throne, apologize to God for sitting on his chair, and then take our place in humility before him. We need to ask Godto guide us rather than always assuming that we know what’s good for us. In verse 6 James quotes again from the Book of Proverbs:

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”.

That reminds me of a quote from the end of The Hobbit – the book, I mean, not the movie! Gandalf the wizard is talking with Bilbo about how his actions have helped the old prophecies to be fulfilled, and Bilbo is shaking his head at this idea. Gandalf says,

“And why not? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow in a wide world after all.”

“Thank goodness!” Bilbo replied.

I like that! I’m only a little fellow in a wide world after all, and that’s something I need to remember on a regular basis! And so, after encouraging us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord, James ends this section by saying,

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (4:10).

So where are we going with this today? What does it mean for you and me as we leave this place and go out into the world as followers of Jesus?

James has described the world we live in – a world torn by conflict and war – a world of winners and losers – a world where the winner takes all and the loser has to pay the price. And he’s asking us, as the biblical writers so often do, “Do you seriously think you can change this without changing the basic selfish orientation of the human heart?”

True wisdom starts with a recognition that God is God and I am not. My knowledge is limited, but God knows everything. I’ve seen only a tiny corner of his universe, but God has seen all of it. I’ve only seen fifty-nine years, but the whole of time and eternity is spread out before God.

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. As I said before, ‘fear’ in this passage doesn’t mean ‘terror’; it means ‘awe’ and ‘respect’. A proper awe and respect and reverence for God will lead to a desire to learn his ways and put them into practice in our daily lives. And this will mean recognizing that I’m not the lead character in God’s play; there are seven billion others on the planet as well, and every one of them is important to God. So rather than being concerned that everyone notices what an admirable person Iam, I need to be shining the spotlight on others, so that everyone gets their share of the light.

Let me close by reading you the last two verses of chapter 3 from the ‘New Living Translation’; I think it’s very helpful:

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

2018 England pics – Part 3

Last Saturday we had a great gathering to celebrate my mum’s 80th birthday. Here are some of the best pics.

Mum with my cousin Angela and her husband Jim.

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My brother Mike, his wife Jeanette, and their children Stephen and Ellie:

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Mum and her school friend Marg Smalley (they’ve basically been friends for 75 years!).

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Mike and I with our Auntie Carole:

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Marg Smalley, Mum, Auntie Carole, Jeanette, Uncle Alan

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Marci and me with Carole and Alan

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And here’s the birthday girl on the day of her actual birthday (Sept. 16th):

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Finally, a pic of Marci and me on the train as we began our journey home.

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2018 England pics – part 2

There is a nice bird watching centre (Anglian Water Birdwatching Centre) about half an hour’s walk from Mum’s place, on the shores of Rutland Water. Sadly I didn’t take my really good camera to England this year so couldn’t get close enough for really good pictures of the Rutland ospreys or indeed much else, but we saw over thirty species on our visit on Sept. 4th. These pics will give you a flavour of the place.

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Gatherings of family and friends were of course a big part of our trip. My cousins Dave, Andy and Annie came to have supper with us on Sept 6th but we forgot to take a photograph. The next day we had lunch at Gates’ Garden Centre with some of my Mum’s cousins. Here are a couple of pictures of that occasion.

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The next day we had a gathering of long-time friends – Steve and Alicia Palmer, Jan and Mark Barnes, and Marci and me. Steve, Jan and I were in high school together. Here’s the group pic:

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On September 10th and 11th we had a visit in Leicester with my Auntie Carole and Uncle Alan. While there, we had a nice walk in Bradgate Park, which contains the ruins of the home where Lady Jane Grey lived in the 16th century. Here are some pics:

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We also got to visit Leicester Cathedral, where my dad was ordained deacon in 1965 and priest in 1966. Unfortunately it has now rather been taken over by the tomb of King Richard III, whose body was discovered a few years ago and was interred in a rather dominant position in the cathedral, between the high altar and the celebration altar. Still, the place has sentimental attachments for me and I was glad to see it again. We were met there by our friend Lee Francis-Dehqani and had a very enjoyable coffee with him afterwards.

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Next up: my mum’s 80th birthday party weekend!

2018 England pics – part 1

So we just got back from a three week visit to England, helping my mum celebrate her 80th birthday and also seeing lots of family and friends. I’ve posted a lot of photos on Facebook and Instagram but none here, so am going to post a few highlights over the next few days.

This first picture was taken from the plane as we were approaching Calgary on the afternoon of August 27th. A good example of why I love prairie scenery even though I rarely get to view it from this angle!

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We got to fly on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Calgary to Heathrow – and a very comfortable ride it was too.

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Here’s a pic of Marci and my mum out for coffee on our first morning in Oakham (where my mum lives). My mum rarely goes out for coffee by herself so we gave her lots of opportunities!

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For the last eleven years, on my visits to Oakham, I’ve made a habit of attending daily Morning Prayer at All Saints’ Church. Here it is.

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And usually, after Morning Prayer, comes coffee at Caffé Nero!

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For our first week or so the weather was very warm. Here are a couple of pictures from a country walk we took.

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On Sept. 3rd we went to visit John Clare’s cottage in Helpston, the village where this great poet was born and lived for the first forty years of his life. It was a great day for me as I am a big fan of his. Here are a couple of pics:

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Marci and me sitting in the garden at John Clare’s cottage.

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Next up – bird watching at the Anglian Water Birdwatching Centre.