Wednesday, 9 December 2009

'A poem lovely as a train'

'I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree,' wrote AJ Kilmer in 1914.

For pure poetry in motion, I would substitute 'steam locomotive' for 'tree', but I can't make it rhyme. Any ideas?
By the way, this is Clan Line passing through Coulsdon South on 9th December.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The aim of music

Two institutions of great value came together together: BBC Radio 4 lunchtime broadcasts, and JS Bach's Mass in B minor. Lunchtime radio is a gem, and one of my great delights about working from home is being able to listen to it during the week. Today there was a programme about the original manuscript of Bach's Mass in B Minor. You might think it would need the visual medium of TV to show the manuscript, but it was described by the participants in the programme with such passion and clarity that TV would have added nothing.

The manuscript has been in the Berlin State Library for 250 years and those who were looking at it said that they could almost hear the music bouncing off the page, the handwriting of the 63 year old Bach being so full of life and energy.

'The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul,' said Bach. What an amazing man - possibly the greatest creative genius in western civilization, and yet at the same time one of the most humble whowas prepared to work for masters he described as 'strange folk with very little care for music in them.' A man full of grace and truth (like someone else much greater).

Today so-called celebrities with less real creative talent than Bach had in his little finger demand that we pay attention to them, and they employ agents to make sure they are continually in the media spotlight. How different for Bach who, having written his Mass - surely one of the greatest musical works of all time - possibly never heard it performed in his own lifetime. It wasn't printed until well into the 19th century, and only became known universally after Mendelssohn revived it nearly a century after Bach's death.

The screams of the audience for 'The X Factor' will be forgotten long after Bach's music continues to bring glory to God, and to refresh the soul.

Monday, 30 November 2009

A History of Christianity

I've been fascinated by Diarmaid MacCulloch's majesterial TV series 'A History of Christianity'. It is very much his own 'take' on the historyof the faith and one that not all would agree with. Nevertheless, he has explored some areas that are usually overlooked in western Christianity, such as the expansion of the eastern church into China in the 7th century, long before Marco Polo and later Jesuit missionaries.

In the latest episode about the Reformation he made a very interesting point about the nature of protestantism being one which questions authority, and in that questioning are the seeds of protestantism's fracture into many different groups. It made me think about the way protestant Christians think about and debate contentious issues such as human sexuality. It is hardly surprising that, given protestantism's questioning character and background that there are many different views all claiming some authority - whether of the bible or modern reason.

Which is better - to be part of a monolithic church that stifles individual thought, or to be part of a church that is divided? It's not easy, but I suppose God has given us enough wisdom and the gift of his Holy Spirit to know when to agree and when to differ, and how to carry on together. I, for one, would rather live with a few grey areas than be in a church that tries to be so black-and-white that it becomes yet another protestant sect.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

1st World War heroes

Today I am remembering my grandmother's only brother, Horace Ingham MC, who was killed in 1918, in France. He was the only son of his father, and brother to four sisters. His father was a successful businessman in Manchester and I wonder how many hopes he had of Horace joining him in the business.

We have a tin box at home containing the original telegram from the War Office giving the news of Horace's death, and all the letters of condolence from friends and colleagues, many of whom had also lost sons and brothers. One can sense the real feelings of grief and despair behind the formal rather masculine words. We also have Horace's notebook from the trenches, with mud on it. Not very interesting reading in itself, but a personal link with such a terrible loss of life.

When my grandmother was ill in hospital in 1976 suffering from dementia she confused my father with her brother Horace. After nearly 50 years she still thought of her older brother and missed him. How many other women must have grieved for brothers, husbands and boyfriends for all those years.

Sadly there are many today going through the same painful bereavement. I hope that what our troops are doing in Afghanistan will not be in vain, and that their brave work will make the world safer for all of us.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Steve Reich in London

Last night I was at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall of music by the American composer Steve Reich. He's described by some as the most influential living composer. His music - at least the music of his that I know - replaces conventional melody with what I would call 'micro-melody', that's to say short melodic fragments that are part of a larger harmonic and rhythmic structure. His most famous work - Music for 18 Musicians - presents a kaleidescope of sound with its ever changing chords and patterns. Some call it boring (I had to go alone to this concert as no-one else from my household was keen)but I find it fascinating. When you see the musicians performing on stage you realise that although the music may sound automated, there is actually a large degree to which the musicians control the performance - for example by how long the clarinets can play a particular phrase before needing to breath. When they breath the pattern changes.

I could go on, but listen to a clip and I hope you'll see what I mean.

'For all the saints...'

Today we got to sing my favourite hymn: 'For all the saints, who from their labours rest' (Note to NOK: I'll have this at my funeral, please.)It captures the spirit of Hebrews 11 in which the writer rehearses a long list of godly people who kept the faith even at the expense of their own death. I am always humbled and moved by that passage and by the hymn as I consider how many faithful people have followed their Lord Jesus Christ all the way, from Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna who, when faced with the choice of recanting or death by burning, replied that he had faithfully served his Lord for 80 years and how could he desert him now. Or William Tyndale assassinated on the orders of Henry VIII because he wanted Englishmen to be able to read the bible in their own language, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Maximilian Kolbe killed by the Nazis, or Janani Luwum killed on Idi Amin's orders for defying that Uganda tyrant. The list goes on and on.

The hymn describes the fierce spiritual warfare God's people often face, but also sounds a note of hope of a better day.

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array:
the King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, alleluia!

This isn't a vain hope, but a strong hope in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the 'author and perfecter of our faith'. That's the hope that kept faithful persecuted Christians going in the past, and it's the same hope that keeps us and many persecuted Christians going today. Christians in Pakistan whose churches are burned down, or in Orissa in India set upon by militant Hindu mobs, or in Burma forced by state opposition to meet in seccret in the jungle, or in Egypt discriminated against by the state, or in North Korea imprisoned by a state that has tried to make the word 'God' illegal. I think of them when I sing

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia, alleluia!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Question Time - an early Christmas present for the BNP?

I expect that Question Time on the BBC last night had a much larger audience than usual. I don't usually watch it as, to be honest, I don't enjoy watching our elected representatives made to squirm in front of an audience - am I too respectful? On last night's showing, I wouldn't have thought that the BNP will win many thinking people to its cause. It's policies seem to be based too much on the fear that comes from prejudice and misunderstanding. What is worth taking note of, though, is the general public's dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties. Most of the QT panel seemed to admit this. This throws them the challenge of getting their own houses in order so that disgruntled voters don't turn to the BNP as a protest vote. It seems that they are now doing this and I hope it isn't too late to rescue the reputation of parliament and the precious institutions of democracy that have made this country great.

I wonder if things have gone too far in an effort to clean up parliament. Personally, I feel that all MPs are becoming whipping boys for the few that have played the system corruptly. Not all MPs are the same. Most work conscientiously and without praise for the good of their constituents. In the bible St Paul encouraged his readers to pray for those who held political power - there was no democracy in his time. I feel we should pray for politicians before we persecute them.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Back from Swanwick

Last week I was with about 400 other clergy at Swanwick Conference Centre in Derbyshire for the Diocesan Clergy Conference. Much could be said, but my main reflection was that for the first time that I can remember at a clergy conference - in any diocese - the main times of worship took Evangelical and Charismatic spirituality seriously. So often evangelicals have had to accommodate themselves to the formal liturgical worship beloved of anglo-catholics, as if it's the only form of worship that can be shared corporately; or fobbed off with an early morning alternative venue for the few crazy charismatics. (That may be an exaggeration, but it's certainly how it has felt.)

However, this year at Swanwick the worship was brilliant. With a natural and organic blending of liturgy and informality, old and new music, catholic and charismatic I felt that we were engaging with God in a very special way that included every shade of the spectrum. It wasn't just a case of putting in different style to please everyone, but rather, some bold decisions were made to break out of some of the old moulds.

I came away refreshed by the worship and encouraged that, in spite of some significant and deep differences, we can unite in our worship of the risen Christ.

And the icing on the cake, for me, was travelling by train together from St Pancras. A real sense of fun and pilgrimage.

Madonna to wed Jesus

'Is Madonna to become a nun?' I wondered when I saw this headline last week in Metro. No, Madonna isn't to take vows of chastity (among others). Rather, for a moment, she considered her mortality - always a good thing to do - and decided she should live life to the full. It turns out, according to a news report a couple of days later, that actually she doesn't want to get married. In fact her words were, "I'd rather get run over by a truck."

It's a funny world that these superstars live in - a parallel universe to the rest of us. However I was amused by the line in the report: 'Despite being married twice before, the singer is said to want another lavish ceremony. "She knows that's what Jesus wants," said one of her relatives.' It puts a new spin on the motto WWJD? ('What Would Jesus Do?).

Actually, a few years ago Jesus came to read my gas meter. Sure enough, the meter reader, from Mexico I think, had the name 'Jesus' on his identity pass. You may have entertained angels unawares, but how many have had their meters read by Jesus?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Scared of Father Christmas

Page 3 of The Croydon Advertiser this week features a story about a little girl who is so scared of Father Christmas that her anxiety threatens to spoil her enjoyment of Christmas. Her father has written a book for Santaphobic children to help them overcome their fears. Apparently many children in the USA and UK are terrified of Santa.

How ironic that we forget the One after whom Christmas is named and terrify our children with a character who doesn't exist. But I suppose it's hardly surprising that some children are scared. Our society is paranoid about the relationship of adults and children and the rest of the year we tell our children to avoid strange men - and what is stranger than an old bearded man in a red suit. What is even more ironic is that the portrayal of Father Christmas that we are familiar with today only dates back to a 1930s advertising campaign by Coca-Cola.

I was saddened by this story - sad for the little girl whose Christmas has been spoilt, but also sad that our society has got its values so confused.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Joys of Music

I've been to two concerts in two days this week: the London Schools Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican Centre, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Southbank Centre.

As a parent and keen supporter of the LSSO I have to record my admiration again for this wonderful enterprise. To see a hundred or so young people totally dedicated to the ultimate team activity is truly inspiring. Rossini's 'William Tell Overture' requires both great sensitivity in its quiet opening for the cellos, and tremendous discipline in its wild galop and the LSSO gave both. Joined by Matthew Trusler, the soloist in that perenial favourite Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, the orchestra was inspired by his virtuosity. After the interval there were two heavyweight works that taxed the orchestra to the limit: Richard Strauss's 'Till Eulenspiegel', and Ravel's 'La Valse', both played with great commitment. I'm sure the Chicago Symphony might have played more accurately, but the LSSO brought an excitement to the music that only comes with youthful enthusiasm. We were treated to a wonderfully suave arrangement of The Girl from Ipamena as an encore.

How lucky we are in London to be able to hear the best orchestras in the world. I remember some 30 years ago queuing for tickets to hear the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, and yesterday I was able to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink. Using reduced numbers they opened with Haydn's 'Clock' Symphony. Haydn's music is so refreshingly cheerful and imaginative and the orchestra played it with clock-like precision and playfulness. The 2nd work was Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. I remember hearing this for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall when I was the same age as my daughter who came with me yesterday, and it made an indelible impression all those years ago.

You have to be patient with Bruckner as his music unfolds at a majesterial pace - think of the scale of cathedrals and mountains. Though a humble and devoutly Christian man like Haydn, prone to anxiety and swayed by criticism, his music is monumental in every sense and leaves you with a sense of his devotion to his Creator. Combining the melodic gift of Schubert and the scale of Wagner, with his own intense and chromatic harmony, Bruckner's music is not for people in a hurry. It leaves you - well me at least - with a sense of awe and wonder. Bruckner regularly thanked God for his musical gift, and I thank God for Bruckner.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

What the whole world's waiting for.

I'm reading Tom Wright's 'Surprised by Hope'. As usual with this author what you get is highly concentrated and thought-provoking writing in a good humoured and combative style. According to Richard Burridge Tom Wright is a 'Marmite man' - that is you either love him or hate him. Well, I love Marmite and the writing of Tom Wright.

In the chapter entitled 'What the whole world's waiting for' Wright draws attention to St Paul's belief that the whole creation is waiting, as in a period of gestation, to be redeemed. Creation itself will one day experience resurrection, following the resurrection of Jesus, and we ourselves will one day experience it in a personal and individual way.

It made me think again about the stages of human life. It seems to me that there are four significant stages, each of which begins with a crisis event: the first 'crisis' is that of conception which brings life into being, followed by a period of gestation (nine months); the second crisis is that of birth, followed by a period of 70 or 80 or more years; the third crisis is that of death, followed by - as Tom Wright, following St Paul, suggests - a period of 'sleeping'; and then finally comes resurrection followed by something very glorious that we can't understand now any more than an unborn child can know what life outside the womb will be like.

This confirms for me the value and sanctity of life through every event and process. This includes the moment of conception and life in the womb - an event followed by a process. Without the event there is no process; without conception there is no life. Or to put it the other way round: after conception there is life. This makes me feel very uneasy about artificially ending the life of an unborn child after conception - ending the process after the event, or, for that matter, artificially ending life by hastening death (suicide - assisted or otherwise).

I haven't finished Tom Wright's book and I'm keen to see if he has anything to say to those without faith in Christ - what does resurrection mean for them? But for those of faith he has very challenging words which pour scorn on a lot of the quasi-Christian myth and superstition surrounding death that passes for theology today. It is challenging me to think more carefully about what I believe, and about the pastoral care that I offer those who are bereaved.

I think 'Surprised by Hope' should provoke some lively debate among those who declare their belief in the resurrection.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The most boring sign...EVER

I've been scanning some of my old photos onto the PC. I took this one in Gloucester in 1973.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Tom Wright on gnosticism

Classic Tom Wright. If scripture is a 'two-edged sword' then Tom Wright is a scalpel who cuts right to the heart of the matter. Very relevant to today, and an exciting new resource from St John's College, Nottingham.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Living with dignity

Here is a piece written by a severely disabled lady. Anyone who thinks that dying brings dignity should read this and think again.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Founding Fathers

I'm reading Barack Obama's 'The Audacity of Hope' at the moment. I wonder if when he eventually steps down as President if he will be quite as hopeful. I'm sure there will be some interesting books to come.

What has fascinated me is his analysis of the American Constitution and its relation to the Founding Fathers of the 18th century who drafted it. There is a debate amongst politicians and historians in the US about whether the Consitution was written as a document whose rules must be followed to the letter, or, as Obama argues, it is a ' organize the way by which we argue about our future.' He sees it as 'a road map by which we marry passion to reason, the ideal of individual freedom to the demands of comunity.' So on one hand you have those who say, 'The Constitution says...and we must do it', and on the other hand those who say, 'These are the principles on which the Constitution is built and in the light of that we should take a particular action.'

It seems to me that there is an exactly similar argument about the place of scripture in the church today. There are those who would say, "We must be an 'Acts' church," that's to say the church today should be a copy of what we see decribed in the Acts of the Apostles. And there are those who prefer to see the principles being worked out in the scriptures and use them to face today's challenges. The problem with the 'Acts church' approach is that, firstly, the church was still in a formational stage in the time of the first apostles and was still rapidly expanding and changing. There is no sense in which Acts was written as a handbook of how the church should be. Secondly, the world we live in today is so different that it is impossible to simply apply a first-century blueprint to today's church. Rather, we need to look back not just to the Acts of the Apostles, but all the writings in the New Testament to understand the principles at work and then apply our reason to connecting them to today's world.

When I've finished 'The Audacity of Hope' the next book on my shelves is Tom Wright's 'Surprised by Hope'. There is so much to be depressed about today that we need people to keep hope alive. What I like about Barack Obama is that he argues for a hopeful and optimistic view of life, but with realism and thoughtfulness. Tom Wright does the same in a theological way.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The church and swine flu

I can't help feeling that the church has capitulated to the no-risk health and safety brigade in its recommendation to suspend the sharing of the chalice at communion. Although we followed the advice of the archbishops yesterday I felt I was doing so out of obedience rather than conviction. The thing is that it's all to do with risk rather than evidence. What actually is the risk of sharing the chalice I wonder? Is there any evidence that during the outbreak of Hong Kong flu in 1969 any church members contracted the virus as a result of taking communion? For 22 years, since I was ordained, I have been helping to consume the wine left over after communion and have never been ill as a result.

It would be difficult to ignore the recommendation of the archbishops, but I really wonder if it is not an over-reaction. The problem with eliminating risk is that it becomes the opposite of faith. Not that we want to play with people's health, but where is faith if there is no risk? What about the risk the disciple Peter took when he got out of the boat to walk towards Jesus on the water? That was faith. Or the risks that the apostle Paul took continually to take the Good News round Asia Minor and Greece? That was faith. Can you imagine what would happen today? Peter would have to be issued with a life-jacket in case he sank, and Paul would have had to fill in a risk assessment form before taking his associates with him on his journeys.

I suppose there is a difference in taking a risk myself, and putting others in the place of risk, but that brings me back to my first point: what is the evidence for swine flu being transmitted by a common chalice? If there is no evidence, then it seems to me there is also no, or very little, risk. And furthermore, this type of flu is mostly very mild anyway.

At the risk of sounding like Jeremy Clarkson, or The Daily Mail, I feel this is just another example of the over-regulation that threatens the spirit of adventure and invention that is part of the human character.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

How will I face the end of the world?

I've just had a couple of men from the Jehovah's Witnesses call at the door. This is the first time since we've been here - nearly 6 years - that I've been door-knocked by this group. They are still banging on about the end of the world, and how to be saved (or safe) when it happens. They also have a preoccupation with knowing God's personal name - 'Jehovah' - but don't seem to understand that this anglicised name from the Hebrew, 'Yahweh', only appears in the King James' bible. They seem to think that it is the highest privilege to know God by his 'personal' name, but I would rather go with what Jesus said: "When you pray, say 'Our FATHER...'" Because I love God and know that he loves me, and because that love is mixed with respect, I would no more call God by his personal name - even if I knew it - than I would call my human father by his first name.

'Father' is so much more significant, because it is all about a loving relationship, whereas calling someone by their personal name may only denote acquaintance. (I wish I'd thought of that on the doorstep!!). Calling God 'Father' is the highest privilege as it implies we are in his family, children of the King of kings, and brothers and sisters with all his children. Not only that, but we are brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus is 'not ashamed to call us his family'.

Over the years I've learnt that you can't score points off the JWs - they are too indoctrinated with a particular way of thinking (and so are a few Christians!). I pray that they will come to know God in that personal and familiar way as Father as they encounter him through his Son Jesus.

Friday, 10 July 2009

A day of rest from church politics

I've just spent the last hour catching up with the latest arguments about the Anglican Communion (see and Bishop Nick's blog). It's difficult sometimes to know when to fight or ignore; whether to resist what seems to be in error, or just get on with the work of sharing the Good News. My inclination is to get on the with work and resist being painted into a corner of identification with this group or that group. Some groups in the church are concerned, it seems, exclusively with truth, and others with grace. All I know is that Jesus was described in the prologue to John's Gospel as 'full of grace AND truth'.

Well, for today at least, I'm going to put this all to one side and enjoy some time in the garden with God the Creator, and give thanks for the potatos, peas, beans, cabbages and raspberries that we have already been enjoying, and the many other fruit and veg still to come. I'm looking forward to my first crop of aubergines that are coming on nicely in the greenhouse. Together with the tomatos, courgettes, onion and garlic we should be able to make our own ratatouille. Now that's a treat in store!

Monday, 6 July 2009

"The kingdom of God is near"

The Flower Festival

Last week was far too hot to do any blogging - I just didn't have the energy to think creatively and write wittily. In the church we have welcomed our new curate, Linda, ordained deacon at Southwark Cathedral, we have had a wonderful Flower Festival all weekend, and on Saturday we had a Prayer Tent on the field for the Old Coulsdon Village Fair. The idea was to take prayer out of the church building and show that God is concerned for people wherever or whoever they are. We prayed with people about members of their families who were ill, and with one person about an unpleasant spiritual 'presence' in her house. I've never met anyone who has not wantied to be prayed for. Even if they don't believe, at least they think it can't do any harm.
The Prayer Tent

Nearby was a tent with the local 'spiritual healing' group. This is not a Christian group and their approach to healing is about finding the power within yourself to heal. I had a long conversation with one of their members a year or so ago, and I don't know if anyone has actually been healed by their efforts. I wondered whether we should have a sort of 'Elijah versus the prophets of Baal' competition to see whose prayers were more effective, but thought better of it. For one thing I think the health and safety officers would not have appreciated fire from heaven coming down and consuming people: that wasn't in the risk assessment document!
Cream teas in the church

Two bible readings set for yesterday, from Mark 6 and Luke 10, were accounts of Jesus sending his disciples out with his authority to proclaim the kingdom of God, through personal contact, through prayer for people, through healing and preaching. In a small way I hope we were doing the same with the Prayer Tent.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Good news...if you can understand it

Having spent a little time with the disabled boy that I'm preparing for baptism and wondering how to tell him about Jesus, I realised that it will have to be by revelation from the Lord himself. And this makes sense because, as Christians, we say that our faith is a revealed rather than a deductive faith - that's to say what we know of God is through what he reveals, rather than what we deduce.

There is a place for logical argument and persuasion, but also a place for direct supernatural encounter. I have heard stories of people - though I have not actually met them - who claim that they encountered Jesus supernaturally through a dream. St Paul - the ultimate thinking theologian - knew about dreams and visions, and I see no reason why God shouldn't make himself known in that way if there is no other.

So that's my prayer for this boy - that Jesus would make himself known in a way that goes beyond rational and intellectual explanation, however simple.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Good news...if you can understand it?

To prepare myself to prepare a fifteen year old boy with a mental age of three or four for baptism I looked for a few simple booklets on sharing the faith. Surprisingly I could only find two on the market: 'Journey into Life' by Norman Warren, which has been around ever since I can remember, and 'Why Jesus?' by Nicky Gumbel. I know there is a more recent edition of 'Journey...' but as I re-read the 1988 version I found myself less in sympathy with its approach than I used to be. Basically it uses the traditional evangelical evangelistic argument: God created a perfect world, man sinned, we are all sinful and can't save ourselves so Jesus came to die for our sins and we need to trust him. I agree with each point separately, but I don't think it's the only way of presenting the gospel.

Nicy Gumbel's book is compelling if you are familiar with such names as Cicero and Dostoevsky. I guess it appeals to well-educated middle class people who are sympathetic to Nicy Gumbel's background as a barrister. Again, the arguments he uses are fine, but I keep thinking about people on our local housing estates and, without wanting to be patronising, I wonder how many of them have heard of Cicero and Dostoevsky.

I looked in vain on the internet for a simple evangelistic booklet costing under £1 that puts across the Good News to the sort of person that might read The Sun or Daily Mirror. If there is one, I'd like to find it. If not, perhaps I'll produce my own.

To return to the boy I'm preparing for baptism: he deserves to be taken seriously, but the way I would usually share the gospel with people just isn't appropriate in this case. It challenges me to identify what is really at the heart of the good news; how can I express it in a way that he will understand. Intellectually he will probably grasp very little, but perhaps my just being there talking with him and his mum will communicate something of God's love, because that's what is as the heart: God loves us, Jesus shows us what God is like, and he gives us new life that gets better and better.

It's far harder to make things simple than to make them complicated; that's why I like the challenge of talking with children and preaching to a mixed congregation. I think every preacher should be forced to preach to children. I believe that if you can preach effectively from the epistles to children it shows you truly understand what they are saying.

So, watch this space for futher developments.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Community Cohesion and Schools

I've just spent another hour in a school governors' committee meeting talking about 'Community Cohesion'. This is how the Department for Childrens, Schools and Families defines Community Cohesion:

Working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities, a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in school and in the wider community.’

I am a little cynical about this as it seems to me that schools are being used by the government to promote a particular social policy, albeit one with laudable aims. Schools are having to come up with more and more policies, take part in increasing assessment, demonstrate widening circles of consultation with stakeholders - and, if they have time, teach our children.

Having said that, I am in favour of the aims of community cohesion because they run parallel with those of the kingdom of God, as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus. He valued people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures; he modelled something good about strong and positive relationships; and he invited everyone to be part of his kingdom, though some refused and made excuses. At the same time, though, he made it clear that membership of that kingdom brings very clear challenges to lifestyle and belief.

I will be helping to draw together our church school's policies on equality - gender equality, disability, racism and community cohesion - into one Equality Policy, not because I think the government is right to require schools to do so, but because as a church school we want to reflect values that are in line with the kingdom of God. This may raise some uncomfortable questions about what we are doing in the church to promote the values of the kingdom of God, but I hope that discomfort may prove to be creative.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Helping people to meet Jesus.

'Helping people to meet Jesus' is our church motto, and this morning I had the opportunity to do just that. I was called over to the church where there was a lady in some distress, saying that the devil had her in his power. We went into the church to pray and I asked her about her life. I suggested that I prayed for her and anointed her with the oil of chrism. This is oil that is traditionally used at confirmation and is a sign God sealing the believer with his Holy Spirit. As I prayed I could see what was troubling this lady visibly lifting off her, and her cries of distress changed to prayers of joy.

What a privilege to have this ministry of reconciliation (as St Paul puts it) - that is, helping people to be reconciled with God through his Son Jesus. And what a joy to see God's grace at work through his Holy Spirit restoring this 'prodigal daughter'.

Monday, 8 June 2009


Someone at the The Daily Express made a blooper today:

JESUS Christ is the dead person most Britons would love to meet, a study revealed yesterday.

Oh dear! They haven't got many theologians at the Daily Express.

You can read the whole article here:

The dead person who came second was Princess Dianna. I'm not sure whether the picture on the Daily Express page is Jesus or Dianna. Maybe its a syncretist morphing of the two.

Well, it's good news for the church I think. Our church motto is 'Helping people to meet Jesus' - that is in THIS world, not the next. If the Express survey is true, then I think we're on the right track.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Barack Obama - the new messiah?

President Obama's speech in Egypt sounded positively messianic. Obviously designed to flatter his Muslim audience, he quoted liberally from the Qur'an, but also (with an eye to his religious audience at home perhaps) from the Talmud and the Bible. Nevertheless, let's not be too cynical because what he said sounded a completely new start in American - Muslim relations. I have read elsewhere that the President is perhaps naive in thinking that Islam is some homogeneous movement (rather like the Roman Catholic church). Islam is as divided as 'Christendom', with its fundamental faultline of Sunni and Shia (comparable to the Western and the Eastern church after the Great Schism of the 11th century).

But I think Obama should be applauded for such a strong speech, delivered with a winsome blend of authority and humility.

It would be great to think that he will succeed where other presidents and leaders have failed. Probably one speech won't do it alone, but at least it's a start.

I said that I thought the speech sounded messianic in tone. Well, this is what the true Messiah said, quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Sovreign Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

Let's hope and pray that the president's words bring good news to Israelis and Palestinians who feel both threatened and oppressed by each other; to women in oppressive Muslim states; and to all those who are imprisoned by the hatred of those they don't trust.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

God is good - all the time

On Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost with our Christian brothers and sisters from all the churches in Coulsdon. About 300 people - young and old, male and female (Acts 2:17 & 18) - gathered at Coulsdon Memorial Ground at 12 noon. We were blessed with fine weather. The band from St John's led the music; children's activities were organised by St Andrew's, members of other churches did prayers and readings, Simon Stocks from St John's gave the address, and all the church leaders gave the final blessing together. Our aim was to celebrate God's goodness, and be a visible sign of unity. It was good to worship together and to enjoy one another's company with a picnic afterwards.

God is good - all the time.
All the time - God is good.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Clergy and Trains

Why do so many clergy like trains - real and model? I have a model railway in our garage, and my father (not a clergyman) has a railway in his garden. I made a short film of it recently - combining my love of trains with with my favourite British light music:

My own theory is that railways are all about order and communication. For some clergy the stress of parish life, and the number of awkward people that one sometimes has to deal with, can be forgotten about in the ordered environment of a model railway. Here you are in complete control, with no-one to answer back or contradict. Yes, trains sometimes get derailed, but no-one gets hurt. Some model railway enthusiasts run their trains to a strict timetable - another layer of order and control. But running a railway can be a very social activity. In real life trains are passed from the control of one signalbox to another with great care. Nowadays this is all computerised, but it used to be by a series of bell codes and telephones.

Here is a link to a lovely BBC archive film that shows a rather eccentric elderly couple and a decidedly eccentric young curate expressing their love of trains - real and imaginary.

Is there anything theological or biblical in all of this? I'm not sure, but maybe building and running a model railway reflects something of the creativeness of God, and his fatherly care.

Railways are also about communication: taking people to their destination. They used to carry the news and the post. I haven't done a survey, but I think train-loving clergy tend to be found more in the evangelical wing of the church in which a high priority is put on taking the good news to new places.

I'm sure psychologists would have a lot to say about the fascination with railways, and I'd be interested to hear what they say. But for me, it's just something I've grown up with and embraced for myself - rather like my faith I suppose.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Spring Watch

Here are some pictures of Spring in our garden.

I saw our mother fox suckling her four cubs last Sunday morning;

two squirrels mating on our drive - have they no shame! -

and honey bees collecting nectar from our poppies. ( I don't know if they are opium poppies; if so, perhaps that's why they are so popular with the bees.)

And yesterday we saw a baby goldfinch going for its first solo walk - hopefully not into the jaws of one of our neighbourhood cats.

My beloved spake, and said unto me,
'Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;
the flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
the fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.'
The Song of Solomon, Chapter 2

Thursday, 21 May 2009

So simple

'Whoever has the Son has life. Whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.' So wrote the apostle John in his first letter. What could be simpler? And what could be more inviting than the promise of life in all its fulness.

I shall be preaching on this on Sunday, although it hardly needs a sermon to explain it.

Monday, 18 May 2009

MPs - our true representatives?

One of our Readers was reflecting yesterday in church about the MPs' expenses scandal. He wondered if they are not actually true representatives of the electorate in the sense that given the opportunity, most people would probably exaggerate their expense claims if they thought they could get away with it. This is no excuse, but when we talk about standards we have to make sure that if we criticize others we are not being hypocritical. Would I claim more on my expenses if they were paid from public coffers rather than the cash-strapped church? I might be tempted to. (In case you are interested, I have claimed for carpets to be cleaned in the part of my house where I host church meetings.)

So perhaps we get the representatives we deserve - men and women who are no better and no worse than we are.

Whatever the case, I'm sure many of the people of Zimbabwe would wish for a government such as ours, even with all its shortcomings. The lavish opulence that Robert Mugabe lives in compared with the majority of the population makes our MPs' claims seem trivial, and the fear which his government spreads around supporters of the opposition makes our political shortcomings seem small. I guess that if people were brave enough to question the expenses of government ministers in Zimbabwe they might get severely punished.

Thank God that we live in a country where government is still relatively open and honest, and that we have the freedom to call politicians to account in the media and through the ballot box. I really hope that the main political parties haven't damaged their reputations so much that some of the the minority extremist parties gain at their expense in the European elections.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Music Marathon

I know music shouldn't really be used just to raise money, but that's what we're doing tonight at church as we start our 24 hour sponsored music marathon to raise funds for the redecoration of the church.

We've got people signed up till at least 4 am tomorrow morning, and then starting again at 6 am.

Nicy and I are doing the slot from midnight to 2 am as our daughter has her after-prom party and we'll be awake anyway. I'll probably fill in the gaps tomorrow and play all my favourite music.

I tend to get a bit grumpy if I'm deprived of sleep, but it's all in a good cause!

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Is God incomplete?

Is it heresy to say that God is incomplete? Reading from the first letter of John again on Sunday we were reminded that 'if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.' Can it be possible that God needs us in order to be fully complete? That he needs us to love another in order for his love to be complete? What sort of God is it that needs people in this way? Some might say, "He can't be much of a god if he is so needy." But John seems to be saying that he is SO loving he is even prepared to risk his own omnipotence in order to show and share his love.

One thing that a powerful person cannot do is to make you love them. No matter how powerful - even if they have the power of life and death. The opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Love encourages growth and more love, but power - with the possibility of punishment - will only lead to fear. Fear makes people wither and turn in on themselves.

So here is the paradox: God, the all-powerful, the almighty, the all-loving needs people to take the love that is at his heart and express in 'actions and truth', as John says, in order to make it complete.

What an amazing God!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The garden in May

Here is my garden again, as it looked last week. This is such a colourful time of year for shrubs and trees.

The sun was shining through the contrasting colours of these two trees - oak and cherry - and gave a sort of stained glass window effect. God is such a great artist!

Friday, 8 May 2009

New Wine in Harrogate

I spent two-and-a-half days in Harrogate this week at a conference for church leaders run by New Wine. My goodness, it was stimulating, encouraging, challenging, releasing and motivating. The underlying and overarching message was simple: 'get out and get going'. In other words, get on with talking to people about Jesus, get on with mission. We heard from a speaker - Carl Medearis - who has worked for many years in the middle east with Muslims about he speaks about Jesus with them. A good Muslim loves Jesus and tries to follow his teaching as much as a good Christian does. This was quite challenging for those who have a negative view of Muslims and see them as 'the enemy'. So why haven't we twigged this earlier and just talk with Muslims about Jesus, rather than Christianity or religion? I suppose our view of Islam as a religion is as negative as many people's view of Christianity. But when you talk about Jesus, that's different.

We heard from Archbishop Henry Orombi about being equipped for mission. The Archbishop is a godly leader who has come up the hard way. He is a man of integrity and wisdom and of stature - literally as he is well over 6 feet tall. Listening to him speak speaking unequivocally about Jesus and about leadership left me with a great respect and admiration for this man of God.

I was personally challenged to spend less time in front of my computer - so perhaps less blogging - and more time with people talking about Jesus. Those of us, like me, who are more introverted find this hard work, but there is a place for disciplining yourself to do, just as extroverts have to discipline themselves to spend time alone quietly with God.

The great thing about this New Wine conference was that it was not just about ministered to for its own sake, but about being equipped, motivated and set free for mission. The success will be seen in the fruit, but for myself - and the colleagues I travelled with - I'm going to actively look for ways to talk to people about the greatest good news that there is. Maybe even this blog might start some conversations.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Blogging and the truth

Giles Frazer, in The Church Times, refers to Ruth Gledhill's blog in The Times in which she criticizes Christians who are so nasty to each other on the internet in their own blogs. It's a fair point as it is very easy to post comments that are far more negative and vitriolic than you would use to someone's face. The same is true of e-mails. More than once I have fired off an e-mail in anger and then regretted it. The government has nearly come unstuck through the careless use of e-mails and blogs in recent weeks.

The thing is that it's possible to post almost anything on the internet without contradiction or comment. I know from this blog that more people read it than comment on it, though a few who know me have made verbal comments.

The ability to post at ease on the internet has made Wikipedia probably the most popular place to go to find out anything about anything or anyone, but I always wonder: Who validates it? I know it's supposed to be self-validating, but I will only really trust a source of knowledge if I know it has come from someone with a proven reputation. I suppose this is one of the big differences between 'modern' and post-modern' thinking. The 'modern' scientific approach to life is concerned with objective truth - truth that is the same everywhere and all the time. For the post-modern person 'truth' is subjective: it may be true for you, but it doesn't have to be true for me; it may work for you, but it doesn't work for me.

I wonder if the church, in its attempt to connect with contemporary culture, has accepted too much post-modern thinking and hasn't challenged it enough. I'm sure truth has to be universal, or it simply isn't the truth. But how is objective universal truth presented in a way that attracts rather than repels? Jesus was described as being 'full of grace and truth', and it seems to me that this is the perfect winsome combination.

None of us is perfect; I'm sure we would all want to be better people. Grace without truth leaves you with no reason to change; truth without grace does not help you to change - it's like the law in that it simply shows you where you are wrong. But grace and truth together hold out both reason and help to change. Thank God that in Jesus grace and truth go together and that he is the one who gives us a reason and the help to change.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Chasing Cars

Unlike the Bishop of Croydon, I'm not often given to quoting popular songs, but here is one - 'Chasing Cars' by Snow Patrol - that I've been asked to play at a funeral of a young man tomorrow:

We'll do it all Everything On our own

We don't need Anything Or anyone

If I lay here If I just lay here Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

I don't quite know How to say How I feel

Those three words Are said too much They're not enough

If I lay here If I just lay here Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Forget what we're told Before we get too old Show me a garden that's bursting into life

Let's waste time Chasing cars Around our heads

I need your grace To remind me To find my own

If I lay here If I just lay here Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Forget what we're told Before we get too old Show me a garden that's bursting into life

All that I am All that I ever was Is here in your perfect eyes, they're all I can see

I don't know where Confused about how as well Just know that these things will never change for us at all

If I lay here If I just lay here Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

With a lot of songs like this I'm never quite sure if it's just pretentious twaddle, or something more profound that expresses a deep inner longing for something better. Let's assume it's the latter.

It seems to me that the singer feels the same way as The Teacher, the name given to the writer of Ecclesiastes 2500 years ago. He's not sure about what life is all about, but tries to find meaning in something. In this case it's in intimacy - but it's an intimacy that tries to blot out everything around it; an escape from the world rather than an entering into the world. The funeral I am taking tomorrow is of a young man who committed suicide, and perhaps this is what he thought.

'I don't quite to say... how I feel,' is a cry for help. It makes me think of Munch's painting 'The Scream': a wordless cry expressing something very deep but intangible. Is he afraid of life, or of living I wonder? But at the same time the singer wants life in all its fulness: 'Show me a garden that's bursting into life.' What a positive image of hope and new life. This is what Jesus offered: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." This is the life of the bursting garden for anyone who finds it.

'Let's waste time...chasing cars...around our heads.' The Teacher says there is a time for everything, even a time for wasting time - that's how I interpret his words 'A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them.'

'I need your grace to remind me to find my own.' I don't know what the singer is trying to find, but it's true that we all need grace - God's loving grace that helps us not only to find him, but to find ourselves and be content with who we are.

''I don't know where...confused about how as well...just know that these things will never change for us at all.' That's what the writer of Ecclesiastes thought - nothing changes; it's all meaningless. But Jesus challenges that in the ultimate expression of change - from death to life. I read this morning about the possibility of God's power at work in our lives: 'That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead...' If that is true, then I want to know more of that power at work in my life.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Croydon Youth

What does the phrase 'Croydon Youth' conjure up in most people's minds? Gangs causing trouble, maybe? This afternoon I heard the Croydon Youth Orchestra give a spirited and disciplined performance of Dvorak's 'New World' Symphony under their guest conductor Peter Stark. Professor Stark, of the Royal College of Music, featured in last year's TV series 'Maestro' and obviously has the gift of motivating young players to give their best.

During this weekend the CYO has rehearsed for 3 hours on Friday night, 6 hours on Saturday and 4 hours today - a total of 13 hours concentrated rehearsal. It certainly paid off, as the creative heat generated by such intensive rehearsal resulted in a totally committed performance of this popular work.

Trinity School lent their newly refurbished hall for the performance, with its wonderful accoustics - surely it will be one of the best performing venues in the area when the work is finished.

Croydon has talent! and this afternoon it was shown in the brilliant Youth Orchestra.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

St George's Day

How ironic that the patron saint of England was born, as far as we know, in Turkey and fought in the Roman army. However, it is not George's nationality that we celebrate but his courage and faith. Perhaps that's what we need most of all as we face the worst economic recession since the Second World War.

It's also ironic that one of the very characteristics of Englishness that is so admired around the world - that of self-deprecation - prevents us from celebrating our national day. I'm glad to be English and to live in England. I appreciate our 'green and pleasant land'; when I have been in Africa I begin to pine for cloudy wet days. I appreciate our long history of democracy going back to Magna Carta. When I was in Kenya some years ago I was asked by a group of church elders why Kenya was so poor and we were so rich. I replied that I thought having 800 years of parliamentary accountablity had something to do with building a system that is reasonably honest and that works. I enjoy our sense of humour: wit and irony seem very English. The Germans laugh at other people (schadenfreude) but we laugh at ourselves. I admire the quiet courage that saw this country through the Second World War. I love English films like 'Brief Encounter' and 'The Dambusters'. Why do we need such public outbursts of grief and emotion, for example at the death of Princess Diana, when there is an English way to do it. I watched The Dambusters again last week and marvelled at the English way that Guy Gibson deals with the death of his faithful black dog N****r (I don't know if I can even print his full name these days!). Gibson doesn't cry, he just looks for a moment into the distance and then puts the dog's lead in the wastebin. Does his lip tremble? Maybe an implied tremble is all that we get. That is Englishness - just look into the distance, then get on with life.

I think another characteristic of true Englishness is to accept people as they are. I don't think we are a racist nation at heart, though some people confuse patriotism with nationalism. When you look at other European countries you see how much more integrated our society is.

It takes an outsider to really appreciate Englishness, and Bill Bryson does this suprememly in his book 'Notes from a Small Island.' He realised that he had started to take on the characteristics of the English when he began to look forward to 'a nice cup of tea'.

Should we celebrate St George's Day? I haven't got a flag to fly even if I wanted to. I think it's more English just to say, "Yes, I'm glad I'm English. Now let's have a cup of tea."

Something English to celebrate

Last week I was full of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and so were all the arts pages of the media. But on this St George's Day here is something English to celebrate - the London Schools Symphony Orchestra that played at the Barbican Centre last night. (Our daughter was playing 2nd oboe - so I have a particular interest.)

The LSSO is still one of the best kept secrets in English musical life. Easily as good as the National Youth Orchestra it gets very little publicity, even in London. With only 2 weeks rehearsal - most of that during the school holidays - the LSSO competes with the best orchestras. Last night they were directed by the Hungarian conductor and pianist Tamas Vasary who directed them from the keyboard in Chopin's Second Piano Concerto. He paid the orchestra the compliment of being one of the best he had played with in this concerto. Admittedly, the orchestra only acts as a 'backing track' for much of the concerto, but they followed impeccably.

In the other two works the orchestra was able to shine: Dvorak's Scherzo Capriccioso and Brahms' Symphony No. 2 (one of my favourites). Both are difficult works which would tax a professional orchestra, but the LSSO played with commitment and maturity. I was struck, as I have been when hearing them before, on the sense of ensemble: each player seemed to be aware of what the others were doing, balancing their sound as necessary. Unlike many young amateur orchestras they watched the conductor and avoided rushing in the fast passages, keeping their cool when the music was fiery.

Yes, there were a few rough corners, but this didn't spoil the enjoyment of live music-making which these 90 or so young people were so obviously committed to.

An English characterestic is not to blow your own trumpet, but on St George's Day I want to blow the trumpet for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, 20 April 2009

A horrible thing

I witnessed a horrible incident yesterday right outside our house. A car stopped suddenly across our drive and I heard shouting. I thought at first someone had crashed into the car, but actually there was just one car in which a man was shouting at a woman - I presume his wife. Not just shouting, but swearing and then forcing her to get out of the car. By this stage I couldn't be an onlooker any longer - I had to see if I could help, even though I was fully prepared for the man to take a swipe at me for interfering. A passer-by was telling him to calm down or he would report him to the police, and I made sure we had the car's number. Goodness knows what had sparked this off; it was like a scene from Eastenders, but much more horrifying because it was for real and the man seemed completely out of control. I asked the woman if she was OK and she said it was just a bit of 'domestic'. Fortunately her sister lived round the corner, because the man suddenly drove off without her leaving her shaken and, no doubt, embarrassed.

The incident left me shaken too, and also our daughter who had witnessed it, but I was also profoundly sad not just for the woman, but for both of them that they should find themselves in this situation. There was nothing I could do to help except just be there and stand with the woman while her husband drove off. The whole thing happened so suddenly and unexpectedly that there was an animal quality about it, and I think it's that which was so horrifying - that within our humanity there still lurks this sort of primeval rage. And to see this within what is supposed to be a loving relationship was all the more upsetting.

After the lady had gone I found myself praying for her. I had no idea what the circumstances were, whether either of them was to blame, or where they had come from, but it's in these situations when we are compelled to pray that Paul's words to the Romans are so helpful: 'We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.' I trust that the Spirit groaned on behalf of these two people and that somehow in the mystery of God they will find the peace and reconciliation that they need.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Inclusion and Welcome - What Rowan WIlliams said

I referred yesterday to Rowan Williams' comments about inclusion and welcome without being able to give the source - the unforgiveable sin! So here it is, though to go right back you must follow a link to the Nederlands Dagblad, and the page on that website doesn't seem to be working.

This link is to a comment on the Archbishop's interview by Simon Barrow. As one would expect, the Archbishop's comments are nuanced and carefully thought out, and Simon Barrow adds his own 'take'. At the heart is the issue of how people need to change when they encounter Christ. I think the Archbishop is saying that 'inclusion' implies that no change is necessary for people who are newly included, whereas 'welcome' implies that there is a community with certain values that the newcomer is welcome to embrace - and this may mean change.

When I encounter what Rowan Williams has to say, it makes my brain feel like the size of a pea. It's very easy to hijack what he says and turn it into soundbites to support one view or another. Anyway, if you have time read this article and if you can access the Dutch website all the better.

I've just got back from the hearing the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra again, so my mind is still full of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein. I'm glad to report that classical music is not dead, and that this week 58,000 people will have been through the Royal Festival hall hearing the orchestra (I had that from the head of education at the South Bank Centre, that I sat next to).

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Inclusion or Welcome?

Inclusion is not an essentially gospel characteristic, but welcome is. Recently I came across a quote by Rowan Williams - and I can't now remember where - in which he said more or less the same thing. It set me thinking about the so-called 'Inclusive Church' and the debate - actually more like a divide over which which people shout - between those Christians who prefer to draw distinct boundaries in areas of sexuality and those who are uncomfortable to do so. I have heard it said that it is not (politically) correct to welcome people, say, to worship because by welcoming them you are immediately putting a barrier between those who are IN and those who are OUT - that is those who are IN are welcoming those who are OUT. Rather, everyone should feel included on an equal basis. The same is said in some political circles about the promotion of classical music in local music centres (but that is another hobby horse which I must let pass me by for the moment).

It seems to me that Jesus was one to welcome people, to draw people to himself, but he didn't always include them. He was demonstrating that God was creating a new people in a new kingdom and that people were welcome and called to join, but if they chose not to then they would not be forcefully included. The rich young man who came to Jesus went away sad because Jesus had not included him. He just could not get rid of what was most dear to him - his wealth. Other people came to Jesus expressing a desire to follow him, but Jesus seems not to have included them - in fact he made it more difficult for them. For those who would put comfort and family before before following Jesus, he let them go.

But the good news is that Jesus welcomed so many who were otherwise seen as outcast and despised: tax collectors who collaborated with the Roman enemy, women with a dodgy moral past, those with diseases that made them ritually unclean amongst good religious people. These he welcomed.

This presents me with a constant challenge to know the difference between welcome and inclusion, and the difference between legitimate boundaries and hostile barriers. Also, to recognize the difference between my personal prejudice and gospel truth.

Whatever the answer I think it has to be slightly fuzzy. Could Jesus have made a mistake in welcoming the wrong person among the Twelve - Judas Iscariot? With hindsight we can say it had to be so in order for him to be betrayed, but I wonder if that is what Jesus really thought when he called Judas.

I know that if God, through his Son Jesus, had not welcomed me into his kingdom I would not be included, and I am constantly grateful for that welcome. I hope that I, together with the whole church, can extend the same welcome to the 95%, or more, of the population for whom there is an invitation but who have not yet responded to God's gracious call.

The Simon Bolivar Orchestra

In Venezuela the government pays for every child to have free music tuition and an instrument. After 34 years in operation 'El Sistema', as the system is simply called, has resulted in a quarter of a million children - many from the poorest backgrounds - to be connected with classical music. The best players make up the Simon Bolivar Orchestra who are in residence at the South Bank Centre this week.

I heard them at the Proms last year and, along with many others, was bowled over by their enthusiasm for the music, their energy, their sense of fun and joy, and their dedication. It's not enough to simply hear them - you have to see them, swaying in time to the music and twirling their instruments in the South American numbers. But it's their dedication to music that really makes the difference. One of the players last night said that he was up at 5 am practising - and that is fairly typical. I guess that for may of these young people music has literally rescued them from a life of hopeless poverty.

There's talk of the UK introducing the system here, but I somehow doubt if the government has the guts to introduce something so culturally challenging. To get children away from their computer games, Wii, Play Station etc, and practice for an hour before school, and again when they come back...It's the only way to succeed, and perhaps this young Venezuelan orchestra might inspire them.

Ken Livingstone was derided for his fawning attempt to be buddies with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and his deal to get cheap Venezuelan oil for London Transport. I hope, though, the UK might benefit from looking at 'El Sistema' and consider introducing it here. There is no doubt that children and young people can benefit socially, intellectually, culturally and even physically...and perhaps spiritually... by connecting with and performing good classical music.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The resurrection and the Bishop of Durham

Here is a link to a brilliant article by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. It's been blogged by several clergy and is well worth reading.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Listening and telling

It was a full day yesterday, starting at 6 am with an Easter 'sunrise' service on Farthing Down. No sun, but plenty of mist, and sleeping cattle on the downs. The birds were awake and were naturally more tuneful than our early morning groanings. As it was the only service I didn't have to organise myself I was able to enjoy just being a worshipper of our risen Lord along with a few dozen other Christians from the churches in Coulsdon.

I was blessed by two encouraging sermons during the day: one from our curate, Simon, and the other from our bishop, Nick. Simon preached from Mark 16 on the words about Jesus: 'He is going ahead of you...' We were reminded that Jesus goes ahead of us into every place and situation - at home, at work, at school. A simple message, but one that makes the Easter hope of the risen Jesus real and transforming.

Bishop Nick preached at our evening festival service to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the extension of the church. The first reading, from Johsua 4, was about the Israelites putting up stones to remind generations to come of how they crossed the Jordan. When their children asked 'What do these stones mean?' they were to tell them the story of their deliverance. The same could be said today of church buildings. We often say that the church is not the building but the people, but buildings say a lot - like those stones in Israel - and they can raise the same questions: 'What do these stones mean?' We can then tell people the story of why the church is here.

And so to Bishop Nick's sermon based on Luke 24 - the road to Emmaus story. Something Nick pointed out really struck me: how Jesus walked along the road and asked what the disciples were talking about. Then he went on to tell them the whole story of salvation, in a way that helped them completely reinterpret what they had experienced. I was left with the thought that if Jesus spent time asking what they were talking about, then the church needs to do the same - listening and asking what concerns people, then telling the story of God's good news in a way that transforms.

I sometimes go to Neighbourhood Partnership meetings set up by the Council. They are generally bad tempered affairs involving a few noisy residents arguing with the Council representatives. What these meetings seem to show is that people feel they are not being listened to, so they have to shout. If this keeps happening then they get cynical about local democracy and the possibility of ordinary people making a difference to the neighbourhood.

How does the church listen to what people are talking about? I suppose just by each church member using their eyes and ears - it's as simple as that. We are not called to provide another layer of local democracy - we have a much bigger story to tell - but we must listen before we can tell.

Friday, 10 April 2009

It is finished!

How are you supposed to feel on Good Friday? I've often wondered as I've sat through an hour, or sometimes three hours, in church reflecting on the Passion. Am I meant to feel penitent, or in agony, or sorrowful? Sometimes what passes for godly sorrow is no more than a sentimental 'Oh, poor Jesus. How unkind of people to kill you.' Actually, I've never been able to FEEL a share in the agonising suffering of Jesus - maybe because I haven't suffered enough. But there you are - you can't invent feelings you don't have. In the end, if I feel anything, it's just a great sense of gratefulness for what Jesus did in his life and his death. Thankfulness also for his resurrection and the knowledge that what he did 2000 years ago is still effective today.

I think, that like many clergy, I'm a bit like a chef - perhaps more like a mum that's always feeding her hungry family. When I've been 'preparing' and 'cooking' sermons and services I'm not always in the best place to appreciate the message that I'm trying to convey. But later, in some quiet moment, I know I'll enjoy what I've prepared. Today, with my two clergy colleagues, I spoke about the transforming love of God on the cross. I was blessed by what they said, but it was only in the greenhouse later while I was planting out my tomato seedlings that I had the peace and quiet to really reflect and be thankful to God.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The Irony of Holy Week

The irony of Holy Week, for me, is that while I am encouraging our congregations to observe times of reflection on the great saving events of Jesus' Passion, I am sitting here till late at night like a battery hen producing orders of service, sermons, and sending e-mails to my ministry colleagues about who is doing what over Easter. Every year in the run-up to Easter and Christmas I say to myself, "I must be better organised next year." I wonder if other clergy are the same?

But then there is the odd bit of treasure as I prepare the next talk. For example, I was reflecting on the often quoted saying, by an unknown preacher, 'It was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross, but love.' My immediate thought: Yes, Jesus' love for us - for me. But there is another love, which comes out very clearly in John's gospel: the love between Father and the Son. This is such a strong love that Jesus, the Son, willingly submits to his Father's will to go to the cross and stays there until he can say, "It is finished."

It's impossible for us to imagine this in terms of the human love of a father and son, but what is characteristic of this godly love - true love - is that it is always giving. The Father gives his Son to the world; the Son gives his life for us; the Father and Son together give the Holy Spirit; the Spirit gives to us what belongs to the Father and the Son. It's this kind of love that compels me to respond to God's grace.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Spring's in the air

I thought I would post a few photos of our garden as a reminder of the power of Spring - amazing that just a few weeks ago this was under a foot of snow.

It's rather ironic, for garden-lovers such as me, to find that in the bible the story of God begins in a garden, but ends in a city. The love of the garden is probably related to the desire to return to Eden - the first days of creation before sin spoilt the world. For gardeners, there is an opportunity to create a little bit of Eden for themselves. So how do we respond to John's vision, in Revelation, of the holy city coming down from heaven, 'as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband'? Of course it's pictorial language and isn't to be like any city we know - at least I hope it's not like the 1970's Barbican development in London! But what is interesting is that there is a tree - 'the tree of life'. This must be the same tree that was planted in Eden - the one that Adam and Eve didn't get their hands on. An ancient tree that was in the beginning and has lasted to the end. The garden, as the dwelling place for God and man, has been replaced by a city, but the tree of life is still there.

I think that for me the attraction of the garden is as a refuge from the modern city, because though today's city is vibrant and bustling, it can also be cruel, unfriendly, ugly and life-draining. But the city of Revelation is one where God and people will dwell together in peace. It's beyond the imagination of city planners, but I'm glad it's in the imagination of God. I look forward to finding it one day.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Young people, culture and excellence

'Young people', 'culture' and 'excellence' aren't often mentioned in the same breath by the media today, but last night they were all to be found at a concert given by The London Centre for Young Musicians, that our daughter attends on Saturdays. The CYM draws its students from all across the London boroughs.

CYM gives its students an excellent musical education in all sorts of music - classical, jazz, and world music. Many CYM students graduate to the London music colleges, or go one to study music at university. Many play in the London or national youth orchestras.

Last night's concert was typical of the broad curriculum the students study: everything from Monteverdi's 'Beatus Vir' to South African jazz. A recorder ensemble not only played but acted a new piece that brought together the medieval composers Machaut and Dufay in a modern bus station - yes, it did work; the orchestra played Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' with a CYM student as the soloist.

What is so good about the CYM and worth trumpeting is the fact that it is introducing young people to the western cultural heritage - their heritage - and does so at a level of excellence that makes them work hard. It was inspiring to hear the choir give a polished, confident and stylish performance of Monteverdi's 16th century masterpiece. This is worth preserving and fighting for. Sadly, though, some of the London boroughs take the mean-minded and quite silly approach that they can individually do this better, and refuse to fund their students at CYM. Then they turn round and accuse CYM and similar organisations of being elitist - catering only for children whose parents can afford the full fees.

I passionately believe that introducing children to our heritage of western classical music is something worth doing - even if, ethnically, they don't come from that background. Music that is good doesn't have to be justified - and all children should have the opportunity to engage with it.

Before I was ordained I taught music in a boys' grammar school, and what motivated me was the desire to share with others something that I thought was good of itself. My whole teaching career was made worthwhile when one spotty fourteen year old boy said of a Beethoven piano sonata that I had played: "It's not bad, is it."

I suppose sharing something that is good is what has motivated me to become a minister in the church. Jesus came with good news, which he offered to all who would follow him. He welcomed all who would take the challenge, but he didn't include those who wouldn't - in fact he made it quite hard for them and let them go away. The gospel is good news for all; it opens up a way of excellence that has its challenges; it redeems people from mindless oblivion; it changes people who think they may be worthless. Helping people to understand good music and helping them to understand the gospel are very similar - for me at least. That's why I want as many people as possible to experience both.

Friday, 27 March 2009

A Picture of Christ

I came across this painting by Rembrandt - some say attributed to him - two years ago while on a retreat. What attracts me to the image is the humanity of Christ. Somehow the artist captures both a sense of youthfulness - he has a young man's hair - and great age - his eyes seem to be looking back to the begining of time. The artist combines a stronged-featured face with a sense of vulnerability.

For me this comes as close as possible to how I imagine Jesus would have looked. His brown cloak and the brown background show someone who would not stand out in a crowd, yet his face is immediately attractive showing a sense of repose, but not inscrutable. This is a Jesus you could touch and talk to.

I can put the Jesus of this image into the first chapter of John's gospel, where he invites the first two disciples to spend the day with him. At the end of that day they say, "We have found the Messiah."

I don't surround myself with religious art, but in this picture I could say with those two disciples, "Here is the Messiah."

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The centre of the community

I spent this evening at a meeting of chairs of school governors of Croydon schools. As chair of governors of a one-form entry school I struggle sometimes to keep up with the latest government initiatives and the strings of abbreviations and acronyms - it took me some months to discover that the mysterious Elsie Vapp that our headteacher would refer to at meetings was actually Local Authority Co-ordinated Voluntary Aided Programme (LCVAP). It's one of the myriad paths that schools have to negotiate to get money.

It seems to me that schools today are being asked, from central government down, to provide the cure for all social evils. Last year it was Gender Equality Duty', this year it's simply 'Equality', and now 'Community cohesion' is the latest duty that schools have to take on. Each school will have to show evidence that it is promoting 'community cohesion', as the government seems to believe that this is one way to stamp out discrimination, racism, inequality and, ultimately, terrorism.

The other big thing that schools are expected to do provide is extended services - from breakfast clubs in the morning to community activities in the evening. 'Eight till eight, twenty-four seven'. It's a good way, perhaps, to use the buildings efficiently as a resource not just for the immediate learning community but also the wider neighbourhood, but I'm concerned that schools are in danger of having more contact with children than parents in an average working day. A child who is dropped off at a breakfast club at 8 am, and then picked up from an after-school club at 6 pm spends 10 hours at school. Taking into account time for sleep, that's longer than he or she will be able to interact with parents.

Schools seem to be taking the place in the community that the church traditionally did, which is ironic as it was the church that set up most schools in the first place. It's a challenge to me as rector of a parish church to know what is left for the church to provide for the community. In our part of the world other agencies and organisations provide clubs for children, and recreation for the elderly - perhaps we're more fortunate than other areas. But what the church can provide, which no other agency can, is space for people to encounter God in a real and living way. Our church motto is 'Helping people to meet Jesus.' That's what keeps me going when I question what the church is here to do. Sometimes helping people to meet Jesus may be through providing community services as an expression of God's love, but I believe, at least, it's through meeting Jesus that a whole new world of limitless possibilities is opened up to us.