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 The garden, as the dwelling place for God and man, has been replaced by a city, but the tree of life is still there.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.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Dealing with tyrants

Nicy and I have just been to see Julius Caesar at The Miller Centre in Caterham. It's a local theatre club which we joined this year - actually a generous parishioner bought us a year's membership. To my shame I can't remember when I last saw a Shakespeare play live on stage - it was probably when I was at school doing A level English. I had studied Julius Caesar for 'O' level and so got out my old text book with my notes to refresh my memory.

As I said in my blog yesterday about quality versus reality TV it was refreshing to see good quality live drama again. It was a powerful performance of a play that is at its heart a criticism of tyranny. What do Brutus and Cassius gain from their assassination of Caesar? Nothing for themselves, but freedom for the Roman people.

It's a play that raises a difficult question about tyrants: would it be better to 'take them out' as individuals rather than punish their people. Would it have been better to send in a few crack troops to get rid of Saddam Hussein and liberate his people with the minimum of bloodshed? Would it be better to do the same with Robert Mugabe? I suppose the difference is that Brutus and Cassius were loyal Roman citizens; they were doing it for their own country. That's what happened with Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife in Romania - it was their own people who dealt with them. In the end it's not for others from outside a country to deal with that country's leaders, so however frstrating it is we have to wait and watch while Robert Mugabe plays 'struts and frets his hour upon the stage', to quote the Bard.

But there's another principle at work: Jesus said, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword," and though that doesn't give permission to assassinate tyrants it does describe what their end may be. Jesus' saying were not always easy.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Everybody's blogging

So it seems that everybody's doing it - my bishop, friends on Facebook, BBC journalists and politicians. I wonder if it's all rather self-indulgent, or the ramblings of frustrated authors and comedians. But I hope it's a way to engage with people who you might otherwise never meet on a serious level of informed discussion. Certainly the media these days seems to have been so 'dummed down' that it's difficult to find serious conversation except in a few very esoteric places, such as Radio Three. What a treasure we have in Radio Three and Radio Four. Serious conversation is still alive - and still LIVE. 'In Tune' is my programme of choice in the car or the kitchen between 5 and 7 pm: good music, often live, witty conversation with interesting and talented people. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/ I would pay my TV licence fee just for that one programme - forget 'Big Brother' and so-called reality TV. What a shame that 'reality' seems to win so often against 'quality'.

Everyone's talking about Jade Goody today, and no doubt there'll be media coverage of her funeral, but will she be remembered in 350 years time as Henry Purcell is through his music, or Handel, or JS Bach, whose birthday it was on Saturday?

I hope I'll be remembered at least for being a good father, but I don't really care who else remembers me when I've gone.