Sunday, 31 January 2016

I find the hardest thing about writing is making a start. For me it's to do with finding the form or pattern. How am I going to shape the idea that I've had? It's like the composer who may have many melodies in his or her head, but has to work out a form to contain them.

I've been reading through Paul's Letter to the Romans, alongside Tom Wright's commentaries. I keep connecting it with Jesus' parable of the prodigal son in which we see a father concerned for the salvation of his renegade son. Paul writes about the God who is concerned not only for his 'son' - Israel, but for the one who will become his adopted son - the Gentiles. I've often wondered, as many have, what happened to the father and his sons after the return of the prodigal? I imagine that the father had work for them both to do - working on his estate to make it prosper. Paul writes about God's plan not just for the salvation of individual people, but the redemption of the whole of creation - the cosmos. Israel's mission was to be a light to the Gentiles and bring the message of salvation to them, but Israel preferred to keep it to themselves.

So I toyed with the idea of using the parable of the prodigal son as a theme to which I would write variations based on Paul's letter. In musical terms this is not uncommon: Theme and Variations are a frequent form used by composers through the ages. The theme is stated, and then ideas are developed from it, but at the same time the integrity of its melodic or harmonic structure is maintained in each new variation. I went on to wonder if this had ever been tried in literature, and after a short search discovered a paper written on this very subject where the author discusses four novels all taking their inspiration from Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'. A series of some 30 highly structured by also highly imaginative variations based on a simple theme.

Now I have a structural idea with which to work. In fact it will be a Prelude, Theme and Variations and Finale. The Prelude describes the world created by God but polluted by sin - this corresponds to Romans 1 and 2. The Finale will concern God's ultimate plan for the salvation of Israel, all humanity and the cosmos. And the Theme and Variations will begin with Jesus' parable. Each variation will take as its starting point the phrase 'There was a man who had two sons...'

Paul himself writes in a variation form to some extent, often coming back to the same theme but from a different viewpoint, so I hope that in my own way I can do justice to his ideas, but also create something that will help people engage with these great motifs of creation spoiled and redeemed, Israel provoked by jealousy of God's grace to the Gentiles, the importance of family relationships and and calling God 'Abba' - Father.

This week I begin an 8 day retreat at St Beuno's near St Asaph in North Wales. I won't be blogging, posting on FB, tweeting, or communicating in any way. I think my very first blog in 2007 followed a similar retreat. It will be interesting to see if I have a similar experience of meeting with God through his word as I did then. I'll let you know.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and as my namesake I feel a particular affinity. I was reading his letter to the Romans all last week, accompanied by Tom Wright's majesterial book 'Paul and the Faithfulness of God'. Last year I wrote to Tom Wright to ask for some suggestions about my sabbatical project, and he replied, like most of his writing, with a densely worded email suggesting I read Chapter 7 of his book. It's taken my 2 weeks to read that chapter, so I don't think I'll have time to read the whole TWO volumes during my sabbatical - let alone digest it. But this chapter has been helpful in showing how Paul has a background narrative - a 'back story' - against which he does his theology. The back story is in several layers: God and creation, God and humanity, God and Israel, God and Messiah. In Romans Paul shows that God's plan was to work through Israel to redeem mankind and ultimately the whole of creation. But Israel's rebelliousness made it part of the problem, so God raised up one who would fulfil all that Israel should have done - the Messiah. And through the Messiah Israel's mission is fulfilled to bring salvation to humanity and ultimately creation.

My sabbatical project is to turn some of this teaching into stories that children and adults can connect with, bearing in mind that Paul already has a back story - a 'meta-narrative'. There's a limit to how much I can read and study at one go, so I've found that walking has become an essential means of breaking study time into manageable chunks. I was pleased, therefore, to read this article on the BBC website: The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking That is walking whose purpose is simply to think and reflect rather than to travel from A to B. We are so fortunate round here to have easy access to the edge of the North Downs. I can walk up to Farthing Down in about 20 minutes and see cattle grazing, and in the distance The Shard, The Gherkin, and Canary Wharf. So I can be in London and the country at the same time.

And it was to London that Nicy and I travelled yesterday, to worship at Southwark Cathedral at the morning sung eucharist. What a lovely mix of people: families bringing children to be baptised, gay men in their slim jackets, old ladies, the actor Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales - regular members of the cathedral congregation, black and white. Surely a realisation of Jesus' own picture of the kingdom of God as told in his story of the great banquet. "Go and invite everyone you can find, both good and bad, and bring them in," the master said to his servants. After a tasty lunch in the Cathedral Refectory we made our way through the lanes and alleys of the south bank to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a concert of Viennese Salon Music. Not just k├╝chen or bons-bons but 'meat sandwiches' of Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Berg and Bach. But we were treated to some delightful bons-bons of Lehar and Oscar Strauss brought to us by the ever-charming Felicity Lott. Lehar's 'Komm zu mir zum Tee'  was about anything but tea! London is simply the best city to wander through on a warm afternoon by the river - and it was warm...I even saw some shorts.

And back to St Paul. If I was asked my favourite verses of his letters I would think of 'God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us' (Romans 5), 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection' (Philippians 3), and those words set so powerfully to msuic by Handel in 'Messiah': 'Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep but shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.' That is the hope to which all whose faith is in Christ are heading.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The difference between Karma and Grace

Bono_on_Bono_CoverWell worth reading what Bono has to say about Karma and Grace. I guess that the majority of people live according to unspoken Karma philosophy. Bono shows, in his own edgy style, how liberating is Grace.

The difference between Karma and Grace

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Walk in the Parish
The first week of my sabbatical has been a 'tidying up' week - literally tidying up my study and throwing away great quantities of paper, books that I've never read and never will, reorganizing my desk and generally decluttering. Sorting out the remaining matters of my late father's estate, and attending to our flat in Purley. In between I've had time to read a fascinating book by Patrick Leigh Fermor about his travels by foot from Calais to Constantinople in 1934 - it made me wonder if I should have planned to travel like that during these 3 months. But I have enjoyed walking up to Farthing Downs and imagining myself a country parson as I pass the cows grazing up there. Later today I'll be joining my Italian class in Croydon.

Yesterday I visited the first of the other churches in the deanery of Croydon South - The Hayes Church. As part of the mission of St Barnabas and All Saints' Kenley, the congregation there has been meeting since November in The Hayes School. I received a warm and friendly welcome and was struck by the sense of the presence of God among the people there. A congregation of about 30 adults  of all ages, and a dozen or 15 children. Simple but direct worship, engaging preaching, a real sense of fellowship, care and prayer. I wish them all the very best, and hope to see more signs of the church growing like this round the deanery.

From tomorrow I will be working on my main creative project: writing fables based on the teaching of St Paul. The idea for this sprang up some years ago when I became aware of the lack of any material from the epistles in most children's bibles. It's easy enough to tell stories that are already stories, that is in narrative form. But to unfold adult didactic teaching for children is quite a challenge. My experience of taking assemblies at our church school has taught me the value of story telling, and that a well-crafted story can really draw people in, both young and old. So my aim is to write stories that draw on St Paul's teaching. I use the word 'fable' because a fable doesn't have to be rooted in a historically accurate setting. Part of my project will involve reading children's fairy tales, and fables such as those collected by the Grimm Brothers. These are stories that have stood the test of time because they have a timeless quality about them, and have powerful themes. i don't know if my efforts will stand comparison with them, but I'm going to have a go anyway!