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 know...how 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.