Sunday, August 06, 2017

Compassion in the Gut

Desmond Tutu once said: ‘… I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you. Those are physical, mundane, secular, nonreligious things… But you will be judged by whether you fed the hungry, whether you clothed the naked, you visited the sick and those in prison…’ The good news to a hungry person is bread…

What Jesus had heard about was the beheading of John the Baptist. When we hear of the death of a loved one - don't we all too often retreat either literally or within ourselves? Jesus needed to be alone. The crowds got wind of this and followed. I wonder what did the members of the crowd feel so convinced that what they were looking for could only be found in or satisfied by Jesus. They were certainly looking though. Perhaps that’s why this story is one of the very very few that feature in all 4 Gospel accounts. The people were hungry. People still are hungry for what Jesus can offer.

We all know how it feels to be deeply moved by something. We may know something of what Jesus felt that day. We even have an expression which catches it - I felt it in my guts. Sometimes something touches us so deeply that we are compelled to act.
‘…When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them…’ Gordon Hartman from Texas realised that there were no theme parks where his disabled daughter Morgan could go and play and be accepted, so he sold his property development business and used the money to build just such a park where everyone could do everything; where people with and without special needs could play. People come from all over the world. "Yesterday a man came up to me and just held my hand," Hartman says. "He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn't been able to play in water before.”


Hartman says three out of four visitors to the park are not disabled, and that the park is having precisely the effect he hoped for.” It helps people realise that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same," he says. That’s compassion. That’s love. Moved to act but not just for selfish benefit, but for the good of many. Jesus felt splagchnizomai - moved in his gut. Compassion. Even though He is tired, or even grieving - Jesus gives of himself to those who have sought him. Here Jesus fulfils of of the consistent calls of God in Old Testament scripture to feed the hungry.

The disciples said, ’… This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds…’ In recent days the papers revelled in news about how much the BBC's on-air stars get paid. In Norway, there are no such secrets. Anyone can find out how much anyone else is paid - and it rarely causes problems.

In the past, a list of everyone's income, assets and the tax they had paid, could be found on a shelf in the public library. These days, the information is online, just a few keystrokes away. Nothing is hidden. The disciples’ comments about sending the crowds away aren't words of practicality. I believe they reveal a hidden selfishness. The disciples wanted to tend to their own needs not those of those around them. Using words and actions that link to the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial doubt or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and in so doing they share in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

We’re all guilty of responding like the disciples. We’ve seen Jesus at work and we’ve heard him teach but that’s enough religion for one day thanks. Can we just go home now? All too often we don’t realise that we are supposed to do something with what we see and hear in Jesus ourselves. I remember hearing about an American pastor called Rob Bell. He used to run a mega church - 30,000 people attending each week. He knew how to lead a service and to preach and for people to respond. But it took for him to have a crisis of faith of sorts to realise something about Jesus’ teaching - it isn't just abstractions - he said, ‘…I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live. I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live. I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live. I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live. I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live. I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live…’


The real miracle in the gospel today - the disciples tending to the needs of others - continues when a graduate shuns a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, or when a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, or when a church makes the difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, or when one student stands up against bullies in defence of another student, or when, or when, or when… God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

What miracles are we going to play a part in revealing? Messy church needs volunteers once in a while to sit at a table doing craft or preparing it or prepping or serving food; people are still needed to be part of our soon to be launched pastoral visiting scheme; the small group Lent listening exercise now needs a small group to work out how we respond to some of the issues in our church and wider community. 


The gospel to a hungry person is not a sermon. It’s bread. Jesus said to his disciples, you give them something to eat. Being a Christian is not an adjective it’s a verb.  What are you going to do?

Sunday, July 09, 2017

On Crying At A Gig: The Beginnings Of A Theology Of Progressive Music


Music moves us deeply. It taps into the emotional core of our being. On many occasions I have found music to move me to tears and to draw me into something akin to a religious experience. These questions are personal and simultaneously corporate, but they are also pertinent, especially following the ‘One Love Manchester’ concert in recent weeks.


In this piece I will begin to explore why music, especially live music, moves us deeply; to clarify why it intersects with the core of our being to simultaneously root us in a particular place, or amongst particular people; why it creates powerful memories in us; and also to explore why live music begins to point us back towards God.


Over a few years, BBC Radio 2 presented a series of programmes which posed a fascinating anthropological question - ‘What Makes Us Human?’ Guests were invited to submit an essay and then talk about it. Some of the submissions were surprising and very moving: the journalist, Robert Peston spoke about how love elevates us above other animals, as he remembered his late wife Sian Lloyd; and television presenter turned charity campaigner, Esther Rantzen, spoke about how altruism and caring for one another are our great defining traits. Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist and brother of composer Andrew, spoke about music.

Reflecting on the power of music, he said, 

‘… [Music] portrays every human emotion… [It] speaks directly from one human being to another with no barrier of gender, sexuality or race…Music enriches our lives and it has an incredible knack of conjuring memories and can transport us back to past times and places…. Music also teaches skills that can be useful in other areas of life including team work, discipline and self awareness as well as teaching social skills…. Music has the power to literally transform lives…’

Music moves us deeply. It taps into the emotional core of our being. It is no wonder then that music has accompanied the worship of people of faith across the millennia and has been used to tell and retain the story of cultures and communities alike.

In this piece I will begin to explore why music, especially live music, moves us deeply; to clarify why it intersects with the core of our being to simultaneously root us in a particular place, or amongst particular people; why it create powerful memories in us; and also to explore why live music begins to point us back towards God.

Firstly, some context. I hope you have had a chance to listen to the playlist of music accompanying this piece.  

I first heard ‘Man of A Thousand Faces’ played live at the Bataclan in Paris. It’s a small theatre. None of my friends at the that time liked the band, so I went to the gig alone. Surrounded by strangers, as the song built and built to it’s soaring climax, I can vividly recall weeping. I wept again when I recalled that gig and others I had been to there when I heard of the attacks in Paris in November 2015, one centred on that same theatre.

I first heard ‘All I Need’ played live by Radiohead, when I saw them play a concert in the open air at Victoria Park in London. Standing with my oldest friend, surrounded by strangers, I found myself deeply moved by the music and the experience. Rhiddian Brook, the author and broadcaster, reflected on how the experience had affected both him and a friend who were at the same concert,

  …Half way through a beautiful song by the band… my friend, who as far as I know has no religious affiliations, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said that he was having a religious experience. He wasn't being glib. Something was happening in that moment; something powerful enough to make him cry, embrace me and for both of us raise our hands in a gesture of abandoned praise. We both knew, without saying so, that we weren't worshipping the band - great though they are - and that this 'something' was about more than just music….

I first heard Rush play live back in 1988 in the impersonal environment of the Birmingham NEC. A huge barn of a place that treats people not unlike cattle - herding them into zones and rows. I’ve seen them twice since, most recently in May 2013 at the O2 stadium. During the concert , I was squirrelled from my designated pen down into the 3rd row by a friend of mine. I was so close to the band that I could hear Neil Peart’s drums as he played them above the wonderfully mixed sound. As the guitarist Alex Lifeson burst into the solo of the track ‘The Garden’ a lump appeared in my throat and I found tears welling in my eyes.

Secondly, an attempt at a definition.  When I speak of ‘progressive music’ I am talking about a genre that doesn’t really exist. But for the sake of this piece, I will define as something broader than Progressive Rock music which has it’s roots in a revival of British music in the early 1970s with bands such as Yes, King Crimson, ELP and Genesis. The genre has grown, and as the name suggests it could be defined as anything that pushes the boundaries of a particular genre by what instruments are used to perform the piece; often by a use of complex and shifting time signatures; and by the overlaying of different, sometimes contrasting, sometimes clashing melodies. Therefore in general terms, progressive music is anything that nestles up against jazz on the one hand and rock and metal on the other; and up against pop and dance music at the other extremities. The reason I am writing about it is it is a genre that I have loved for over 30 years. It is a genre which moves my feet and my heart and presents a musical complexity created by an interplay of astonishing musicianship and technical skill which often resolves in beautiful melodies.

It is said that Michel Foucault was described by one of his colleagues as a passeur, that is, a person of passage, who was able to cross the territory lines of many academic disciplines.  The passeur could also be defined as a person of power, who uses that power in the service of others.  This could be true of many vocations such as a priest.  But passeurs could also be those who help others traverse societal and cultural boundaries of race, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation and the such like. They could be found amongst artists. Musicians typify this because of the effect that music has on us all. It is a great leveller. As a band plays, however harsh or abstract the music they make may be, there is simultaneously something powerful and organic taking place.

I was at a metal gig recently, and was stood at the bar waiting to buy a drink, and the man in the queue in front of me turned to me wide eyed and exclaimed ‘This in our church! This is where we come to worship!’ And he meant it. The music transported us out of ourselves, somewhere else, and for many of us, when life is difficult for all sorts of reasons, music isn't a welcome escape from our all too human experience, but begins to transport us to a place where we can begin to experience the glory which we are promised by God.
Live music is something almost organic because as the musicians play they are completely relying on each other to bring to life externally what they are experiencing internally; there is an exchange and interchange of power between persons as the rhythm of the drums provide the heartbeat behind bass guitar, whose low tones almost physically provide the foundation for the guitar, whose chords weave and entwine within this auditory collage, allowing for the vocalist to sail on the surface of those waves providing colour and story. The music creates a new unique whole, from the individual and diverse talents of those playing.  This in turn interacts with the emotions and lives of the audience, who in turn respond to the music and the musicians playing.

1.  The Greek word poeis come from ποιέω which means to make. The artist, and in this case the musician is a poet in that they are creating something. In that sense all artistic endeavour mirrors God’s poetic work. It is part of an ongoing response to having the breath of life breathed into us or us bearing the Imago Dei.  The key difference being that God creates from nothing. The musician starts with something be it their own experience of love or the world, but their music is often a creative result of that intersection. God creates in delight. The Book of Genesis speaks about God’s delight in all that He had made; it is as if He cannot help Himself. It is in Him as His creating is directly related to His loving.  In Genesis 1 God sees that which has come to be as good.

Music also enables the telling of a community’s story. The words of the Psalms in the Old Testament gather and present pretty much the gamut of human emotion and experience and present that to God; and using psalmody in Jewish and Christian worship allows the words to express what we express in the presence of our Creator and to continue to tell an important part of the story of a people. Similarly for me, contemporary progressive music is that backdrop to my own life and experience. Bands like Rush, Marillion and King’s X from my earliest years have either caught how I feel about my life and the world and expressed it in song, or tell bigger or more general stories about politics or love or injustice which express the artist’s views. But in my experience progressive music, like traditional story telling, tells the story of a tribe - so when I go to a Rush gig standing on my own with thousands of other aging balding men; weeping as Alex Lifeson’s guitar soared - as they perform, the band are telling parts of our individual and corporate story, as well as the story contained in the song’s lyrics.

2.  Music: Memory and Sacrament.
Memory is a powerful thing. For the Christian specially so. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ are at the heart of our shared life and experience. One of the debates amongst theological students and their teachers is: what is going on at the Eucharist? I would argue that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist in the bread and wine, but by the point that people make their Communion, He is also really present in His people: we arrive in church as individuals from different places in differing contexts, yet as the words of institution are prayed over the bread and wine and we are invited to share in them, we are transformed to being the Body of Christ where we are.

Experience says that there is something similar happening at a live music event. I can arrive at a venue, knowing no one, and yet share something there with strangers that transforms us all into a community of fans. 

The heart of Eucharistic liturgy is Jesus’ words at the anamnesis - where the words bring the past physically as it were into the present - where we gather together with our Lord and the disciples together with countless others in the Upper Room. I would argue that music has a sacramental power to transport and root us in different times and places and can bring something emotionally from that past back into our present.  Hence my own experience of hearing Marillion at the Bataclan back in the mid 90s, and hearing then of the shootings there in 2015 caused memories and emotions to collide in me but also because that was an attack on music lovers and gig goers like me. It became personal.

Was that metal gig that I referred to earlier a church experience? In some senses yes - individuals gathered together and were transformed through a shared experience into being a body of fans; the musicians on the stage were creating music, and in so doing they reflected on their own experience of life as they did. In the act of playing that music there on that day they were mirroring the actions of God, who was somehow present there, delighting in that which He has made.

Music can dull the memory - I’m sure for all of us there will be music which we will deliberately play to ‘lift us’ after a challenging encounter or a tough day. Music can be an emotional anaesthetic in that sense. But if music can tell the story of our lives and the lives of others or of a better place or a better vision, music also therefore has the power transport us to a different time or place. It has an anamnestic power.

3.  Music: Contemplation and Paradox
I have cried at many gigs. I also cry at adverts. The latter is because I’m getting old and sentimental. But the former is something different. As Rhiddian Brooke speculated why,

       ‘…[It is] in part because of the sonic vibrations coursing down the cerebral cortex, the mass gathering of people and the quantity of beer were all combining to produce a heightened feeling of euphoria. But should I write off what my friend was saying [about having a religious experience and crying as a response to it] purely on the grounds of it being just a feeling? I think he was experiencing something that many of us do but can't always name - that sense of something beyond ourselves and the feeling of rapture and exaltation that goes with it The music - like stunning scenery or a fine painting - was really just a window through which he caught a glimpse of 'the other', the something beyond the veil of what we can see with our eyes and explain with our minds…’

Two final stories. Firstly, I grew up in Preston in Lancashire and at the Guild celebrations every 20 years, the towns churches put on a passion play. I can recall taking part in this pilgrimage as a teenager and witnessing the Crucifixion scene in the market. It was moving seeing this story retold in familiar places. In front of me were two girls who were younger than me. As Jesus was lifted up on the cross, one turned to the other and said, ‘Who is that man and what are they doing to him?’ They did not recognise or know the story.

In my lifetime Band Aid and Live Aid are cultural high water marks in helping a generation who’s knowledge of the Christian story is scant, to voice a cry for global justice akin to corporate prayer. Music events such as these have managed to harness an acknowledgement that it just doesn’t have to be this way, with a desire to raise money and awareness to enable change. We could discuss the success of this project.

Then in recent days a concert has occurred to corporately express a community and a culture’s solidarity with the suffering and grieving, and to voice with certainty in the face of terror that it just doesn't have to be this way. I am referring to the ‘One Love Manchester’ concert.  As Pete Ward pointed out in a piece about the ‘One Love Manchester’ concert recently, what if something else was going on? He goes on to talk about how the Kingdom of God and it’s values (such as justice) are bigger than the church; it is something mysterious and longed for. I would agree with his assessment that signs of the coming Kingdom are to be expected in the church, but they should also be found in our wider culture and society if we are prepared to look for them. Is music a sign of the Kingdom? No, but I would argue that, coupled with the spirit of the age intersecting with Kingdom justice, music does give our culture (which knows neither the story nor possesses the vocabulary) the ability to not only speak about, but experience something of God.

Back to me crying a gig. As the apostle Paul - a man who had a spectacular 3D religious experience - once put it: 'since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities can been clearly seen all around us.' In all that is beautiful and excellent, in all that is good, creation shouts and whispers the rumour of the divine. Progressive music is a paradox in which musical style, instrumentation and melody all often contradict each other, but, as we experience this melting pot of style in a live context, it is also a paradox in the sense that this sort of experience can draw us near to (para) glory (doxa.)

The theologian Rudolf Otto - called this sense of 'the tremendous' or the mysterious - 'the numinous - a place where the poetry of the musician orients us towards the Creator; somehow present with that which is created; the corporate experience and the sense of transformation that it brings for the audience; and the music’s sheer ability to transport us to other times and places where the King and Kingdom may be unexpectedly be found - the language of religious experience may quite rightly be used to describe my emotional response to music where tempo, melody, rhythm and structure constantly vie for priority; and where the relationship between musician and audience enable us all to become passeurs and gather us towards the Divine.

Back to the man who exclaimed, ‘This is our church! This where we come to worship!’ Otto also said that a religious experience required an ethical dimension, implying that the full measure of the religious experience was not how spectacular it was - but the fruit it bore. A special effect needs to have a special effect. Music can lead us only so far. It can give us the experience but not necessarily the language.

When the prophet Isaiah had his fantastic encounter with God, his response wasn't so much wow! but woe: 'woe to me for I am a man of unclean lips' he said. And it's this response, rather than the seraphim, or the blinding light, or the figure on the throne that makes it meaningful. The experience leads to an instant inner transformation. And interestingly, Isaiah doesn't go and tell people about the vision. He tells them to turn to God, to help the sick and the poor and broken. Or as Paul himself bluntly put it: if you really want a religious experience go and look after the widows and the orphans.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Manchester


I’m writing this a few days after the senseless bombing in Manchester.
It feels like I have been winded and I am struggling to breath. 


I am left reeling - maybe you are too. 

Is it because I love live music and I can empathise with the young crowd there that night? Is it because my mind was taken back to an attack at the Bataclan in Paris back in 2015 (a venue I've been to on several occasions)? Is it because those injured and killed fall largely into the age group of my own children (and perhaps of your own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or cousins)? Is it because I’ve been to the venue where the attack took place? is it because Manchester is a city I know and love where family and friends have lived and worked over many years? I’ll never know. But I have wept and I continue to weep.
I was struggling to find a way to voice my horror at the attack against a backdrop of stories of Mancunians of faith and none reaching out to their neighbour, going the extra mile, being Christ-like whether they would name it as that or not. And then I found a shaft of light in the darkness. Then I found hope in the gut wrenching despair I was beginning to feel and it came in a surprising place - the Archbishop Cranmer blog (http://archbishopcranmer.com/blast-flash-fire-jesus-came-manchester/) which is a blog where politics and the church meet head on in a healthy debate. 

I rarely read the blog and I find it all too often too Conservative and conservative for my own tastes, but here, the author put words on my lips and a voice in my mouth and so I share the post with you with kind permission of the author (notwithstanding some editing of the original tweets posted in ++C's blog and the biblical quotes updated to contemporary English).

There was a blast and then a flash of fire, and then Jesus came to Manchester



Bodies and blood.
Carnage, terror and tears.
“There are children among the deceased,” confirmed Greater Manchester Police. “This has been the most horrific incident we have had to face,” said Chief Constable Ian Hopkins.
Nuts and bolts and nails.
Smoke and burning.
“This is horrific, this is criminal,” said Harun Khan, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. “May the perpetrators face the full weight of justice both in this life and the next.”
Emergency services praised.
Cobra committee convened.
“Please hold the people of #Manchester in your prayers,” tweeted David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. “We’ve faced terror attacks before and this latest won’t defeat us.”
Fear and division.
Thoughts, prayers and condemnation.
Evil descended upon Manchester Arena last night: his target was teenagers at a pop concert. He wore a vest packed with explosives and metal bits. There was a blast and then a flash of fire. And then everyone just started running, screaming and crying.
And then Jesus came.
“We are visiting for a health conference from morecambe bay trust tomorrow 3 Theatre ODPs available if needed,” tweeted Kirsty Withers, an NHS theatre clinical manager.
“If anyone needs shelter we are right on the outskirts of central Manchester in Salford, anything I can do to help DM me!!” tweeted science student Karolina Staniecka.
“Anyone in Manchester who needs to wait for their parents or needs somewhere stay or to make phone calls, etc, just DM me. We have tea!” offered the BBC’s Simon Clancy.
“Anyone needing somewhere to stay can come to our Manchester headquarters in the city centre,” tweeted Stephen Bartlett.
“Taxi drivers in #Manchester offering free journeys to those stranded after the events in #ManchesterArena,” tweeted Bethan Bonsall.
‘Very truly I tell you, just as you have done it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me, said Jesus.
Out of the depths comes light; out of oppression, a new possibility and hope. You can blame and curse the Islamist in bitterness and hate, or you can sing a song of joy because there’s a better story to tell. In times of distress and suffering, there are little signs of the presence of the Lord: manna falls from desert bushes; quail drifts in with the wind; water is to be found in the most unexpected places. And the water of life is the presence of love and compassion, of guidance and affection, of ordinary people doing extraordinary little things to help their fellow man, for no other reason than that they want to and can.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept, when we remembered Zion‘ (Ps 137:1).
Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?‘ (Ps 94:3).
Is the Lord among us or not?‘ (Ex 17:7).
The power of death brings unbearable grief, but God restores the soul. To live is to praise. There is kindness in darkness, and mercy in Manchester. It is the intuitive pulse of faithfulness, covenant, unity and peace. May God bless those who mourn, and wipe every tear from their eyes.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Martha and the Window Cleaners - A Resurrection Story

Edgar Moreno (left) and Alcides
Edgar and Alcides Moreno loved to clean windows, especially of huge skyscraper buildings. One day they set out to clean the windows of the 47-floor luxury Solow Tower building in Manhattan. They took the lift up. It was a beautiful day, but at the top the temperature was close to freezing. When they stepped onto the washing platform, one side of it gave way, plummeting Edgar 144 meters to his death in a narrow alley. Tragically, Alcides side also gave way and he plummeted to the ground at 120 miles and hour.

Miraculously, Alcides was found alive in the same alley, crouching, gripping the remainder of the washing platform. He was rushed to a nearby hospital suffering multiple injuries."If you're looking for a medical miracle, this certainly qualifies," Dr Herbert Pardes, the then president and CEO of the hospital said.

"The survival rate even from a four-storey fall is not very good," Dr Glenn Asaeda from the New York City Fire Department said. "A higher hand was in control here.”
Empathy: Stories of this sort are very rare. We all will die. Maybe not so dramatically, but like the taxes we pay, it is one of the other certainties in life. Yet the story we hear as the Gospel reading is more remarkable still.

Like Edgar Moreno, Lazarus has sadly died but that’s far from the end of the story. When Jesus finally arrives at the family home, Martha admonishes Jesus. Such is the closeness of friendship between Jesus and this family that Martha is not only certain that Jesus is capable of preventing death but sufficiently confident in her friendship with him that she can tell him off for not having been there to do so.  Jesus is sufficiently confident in himself and in the love he experiences in this family that he allows this woman who is not his mother to talk to him in that way.  As with the Samaritan woman at the well, as with Mary Magdalene, as with so many other women, Jesus breaks down societal norms.

Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. 


Over the last few weeks I’ve meeting many of my parishioners in small groups to do some talking and listening together, trying to discern what sort of church we are and what we’d like to be and what the community we live in’s needs may be. Generally we probably think we know our community pretty well. But what surprised me was whether we were talking about Mill End, Heronsgate, West Hyde or Maple Cross - the big issue we noticed facing our community was isolation for both the elderly and the young. We know it if we think about it, but I certainly hadn’t seen it. The same was true for Martha.

Martha

She believed in the resurrection, but as a future event but it wasn't a new or radical idea. Lazarus will rise again when God vindicates His people. Like good Jews she believed that the Resurrection would happen at the end of time.  What Jesus then says brings that future hope right into the here and now. That action of God, that future life-restoring, death-defeating, covenant-fulfilling, creation-affirming action of God is not only future and is not only an action of God, it is now and is experienced through connection with a specific person, the person John has identified at the beginning of his Gospel as the Word made flesh.  God incarnate, standing with Martha just outside Bethany.  All he asks of her is, Do you believe this?

Do you?

What Jesus asks Martha He asks us: do you believe this? The promise of this passage to us is exactly the same as it was to Martha and to Mary, to those who were stood at the tomb, who had come to comfort the sisters.  Jesus offers the power of his resurrection in our lives today if we will accept it.  We can have the same hope instilled in us that though we will die, we can – and will – be raised to new resurrection bodies on the new earth.  This is no “rapture”, not a disembodied, go-to-heaven-when-you-die notion because that’s not what the scripture says.  This is real, earthy, physical resurrection.  This is God demonstrating his commitment to his creation.  This is not the blithe acceptance of death as some sort of gateway to something better to come but God in Jesus promising to overturn and defeat death.  And all he asks of us is, Do you believe this?

Now, there’s living required after the response to Jesus’ question.  But do you believe it even in the face of the Columbian landslides; after the triggering of Article 50; in the places in life where we feel picked over, sun bleached and barren places where we have stopped hoping that things could and should be different.



When Lazarus came out of the tomb, he was still in his grave clothes, and the community had to help him out of them.  We are called to live as a community of those who follow Jesus, to continually help each other out of the metaphorical grave clothes that bind us.  To come alongside the isolated in our communities and offer them love and friendship - whether that’s amongst those whom we already know living in Meresworth or Moneyhill Court - or those who we don't know yet perhaps offering a lunchtime drop in or afternoon coffeeshop or a toddler group on the Maple Cross estate.  We do this in anticipation of the Kingdom of God that is to come in its fullness.  It is then that, as Jesus did when he was raised on the first Easter morning, we will be raised without grave clothes.  We will then be unhindered by the past and free as children of God to live our eternal life in and with him.


I am indebted to the @underseamonkey for some scholarship that shaped this sermon

Monday, February 27, 2017

Metamorphosis - A Sermon For The Transfiguration

On January 1st 1985 a passenger jet crashed in Bolivia killing all 29 people on board. No bodies have ever been recovered nor the black box voice recorders, but last year Isaac Stoner and Dan Futrell decided to have an  unusual holiday to see if they could find out more about what happened. So they prepared to climb Mt Illimani and see what they could discover in what became a very beautiful and eerily silent two weeks away.  The first thing they saw when they reached the suspected crash site was a life jacket - "a piece of equipment intended to save somebody's life" as Futrell puts it. "So not only did we know we were in the right spot, but we were instantly reminded that there's tragedy here for 29 families.”

On the final day of searching at the lower site, Stoner unearthed a piece of metal with a label attached to some wires that read "CKPT VO RCRD" an abbreviation of Cockpit Voice Recorder. Fuelled with hope, not far away they discovered a spool of magnetic tape - could this be the evidence needed to explain what finally happened? In short no, but they have more in roads into discovering the truth that previous official investigations.

We talk of mountaintop experiences - moments of joy or clarity. The mountaintop experience we hear as this morning's Gospel reading enables us to gather some evidence about who Jesus is, but also to discover something new about ourselves.

Rev'd. Ally Barrett's artwork of the Transfiguration
(c) Ally Barrett 2017 used with permission.

The Transfiguration features in all 3 of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but with some slight variations to the story. The fact that all 3 record the experience Jesus had on that mountaintop should indicate it’s significance. It full of references to or hints at other biblical stories - Moses encounters God on Mt Sinai, his face shone and clothes changed; dazzling clothes and shining faces are indicative of angels in the book of Daniel and in the Gospels; a cloud on the mountain or in the wilderness symbolised for the people of Israel the presence of God; the voice of God uttering similar words is heard at the beginning of the Epiphany season at Jesus’ baptism; and aside from those, there are some striking parallels between what we hear today and the crucifixion/resurrection story we will hear in a few weeks - Jesus is accompanied by Moses and Elijah today and later by 2 criminals; Moses and Elijah depart leaving Jesus alone in glory and later we hear of someone wondering whether Elijah will come to the crucified Jesus to save him; in both events 3 followers are witnesses and so on. Today’s Gospel I believe is meant to be read referring back  to those Old Testament stories and in the light of Christ’s passion and resurrection to come.

2 quick points. Firstly: Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I* will make three dwellings* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 

John Cage caused consternation in the music world in 19?? with his 3 movement piece called 4:33. If you’ve heard it you’ll know why. It instructs the musicians to sit in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. Yet the piece isn't silent - it allows a space to be created by the interaction between musician and the audience to listen and to rediscover the music of the world around and within us - birdsong, traffic noise, our breathing or heartbeat - sounds we so often screen out as background noise - but are still there as we listen. In the Gospel today Jesus is revealed to Peter et al as the glorified beloved Son of God, but this news doesn’t help Peter understand what he should do as a result - he wants to build booths (perhaps to contain the experience) but God wants him to listen - but not as a one off experience. The voice tells us to literally go on listening to and for Jesus’ voice. Our faithful following of Jesus must centre not on our doing but our listening.

Secondly: When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

I am struck on a daily basis at how frightened the Trump presidency is and how fearful it makes us all. The fear is masked by soundbites of power, calls to make America great again, and yet detaining and searching people who just look different at airport security; talk of travel bans and wall building are policies not of might but of fright. The politics of anxiety don't make people feel secure - they breed further suspicion in our streets and schools. We are all looking over our shoulders.

Verses 6 and 7 in today’s Gospel are unique to Matthew’s account. Perhaps this story is more about the transfiguration (literally the metamorphosis) of the disciples - as the glorious experience doesn't bolster their faith but fill them with so much fear that they cower. But notice that it is not the radiant Jesus that comes to them, but the human one as it were. It is He who reaches out and touches them with a hand that has so often provided healing and raised the dead. The disciples are transformed from fearful, anxious, inactive, cowards to brave, confident, active, champions of the faith - perhaps that’s why Jesus tells them to say nothing of the experience. Something in them has changed? Our faithful following of Jesus must also centre on reaching out the divine touch, through our hands to the fearful and anxious in our community.

So often we are human doings - like Peter. Filling our days with activity and noise. When were you last a human being who sat and listened - breaking the curse that our culture burdens us with about a need to be constantly busy as though we gain some worth by that - and just stopped and sat? Disciples of Jesus listen for His voice - not bound in a booth of scripture or tradition - but a voice that speaks through the arts and our culture and each other… but we only hear it if we conciously stop.

Our community is frightened - and it is. The police were visibly present in the village last week after some thefts; some are concerned about their health or that of a family member or friend; HS2 has been given royal assent without any sort of real awareness of it’s impact on not just the green space we enjoy or our views - but on homes and wellbeing locally. Can we be the ones who reach out a hand of friendship and love to the anxious and fearful? Jesus shows us we can.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Letter To Our General Synod Representatives post GS 2055.

To the General Synod representatives from St Albans Diocese (CC The Bishop of St Albans).

Dear all,

As Synod meets this week I wanted to assure you of my prayers as representatives of St Albans Diocese as you discuss, deliberate and listen. I know that this week’s business is not about a single issue, but for many within and outside the church, it is.

Having read the Bishops’ Report (GS 2055) myself I am writing to you to ask you not to ‘take note’ of the report in front of you.

I welcome the desire to change the tone of the discussions of which the report speaks but there are a number of matters that cause me - a happily married heterosexual man - to squirm with embarrassment and shame both emotionally and theologically.

Firstly, we are a denomination which has lived with divergent theology before. I am of course referring to women’s ministry within the three-fold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. There are some who, with good conscience, are unable to accept the will of the church regarding their ministry. I pray that a time will come where this will no longer be the case. Yet, either out of pragmatism or out of a sheer need to stop the church ripping itself apart we reached an 'Anglican compromise' offering pastoral care and episcopal oversight to those of a traditionalist position, allowing for a so called mutual flourishing.  This is not the only example as the Church of England has allowed it’s clergy to remarry divorcees in church under some clear guidelines. This pastoral accommodation has allowed me to minister to those who thought because of certain circumstances they were unwelcome and unwanted before the God of love, to find themselves welcome before God and for their marriages solemnised in Church. We’ve done it before, we can do this again and allow for differing doctrinal positions to be held and for our theology to grow and enlarge in the light of new Biblical understanding, new experience of God and new appreciations of what it means to be human and made in God’s image.

Secondly, I was not part of the Shared Conversations, but talking with those who were, through that process of attentive listening to one another and God, there seems to have been a move of the Spirit at work. People with differing views have come to see those views not as flags to be waved or drums to be banged, but genuine and heartfelt positions based on a interpretation of scripture, tradition, theology and experience. There seems to have been much gained by the Shared Conversations. Whilst opinions and convictions may not have been changed necessarily - those positions and opinions became people and human stories and it has been this incarnational work that seems to have been transforming. It surprises me therefore to find so little reference to the Shared Conversations or their outcomes in this report. Indeed it feels as one reads it, that the Shared Conversations experience has played none or certainly very little part in the writing of it.

Thirdly, I initially welcomed talk in the report of a new teaching document on marriage and of ‘maximum pastoral freedom' in terms of potential pastoral responses, until I realised that both were couched, not in the language of love, but of concession and therefore of fear. This is also perhaps why the appalling and dehumanising short hand ‘same-sex attraction’ is used throughout the report to describe the emotional life of LGBTI people. These people are people who love and laugh and cry and sing just as I do. They have feelings like I do. They experience the love of God as I do. They are invited into a life of discipleship as I am. In this climate, my fear is that any new teaching document on marriage will continue to perpetrate the myth that marriage is about procreation and property as our liturgy still hints at, rather than celebrating the crowning glory of what it means to be human - to be loved by another - into life. And talk of ‘maximum pastoral freedom’ sounds like ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ As far as the church is concerned marriage is marriage regarding heterosexual couples whether it took place on a beach, in a hotel, on a cruise liner or in a church. 'New pastoral freedom’ makes me as a parish priest feel like I am still having to look over my shoulder to keep an eye out for the Archdeacon or indeed the Bishop. We should be in the business of celebrating love between two people. Anything less, reduces those two lovers, to something sub human and denies the being of God.

Fourthly, LGBTI people continue to be treated by our church as an issue to be solved rather than people that God loves; despite the talk of a new tone in speaking of and relating, GS 2055 fails to model it. I have found myself shocked and breathless at some of the language coming from Trump’s America in these early days of his presidency - partisan language that names people as ‘things' whether they are muslim, Mexican or women.  The report before you similarly objectifies LGBTI people but fails to temper that language by doing what the Shared Conversations did, and that is to allow their voices to be heard and their stories of faith and commitment under God to be told. If the Church were to speak of other social or ethnic groups in a report using the tone and language as this one, we would quite rightly be accused of racism or sexism, which as a national church we rightly speak out against. Why is it therefore somehow ok to use language couched in homophobia in relation to the sex lives of some of our servers, choristers, PCC members, cleaners, youth workers, Sunday School teachers and so on? That’s right, it’s not. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Fifthly, we ask the God of love to bless many things - people, pets, homes, ships, even nuclear submarines and yet we can’t bring ourselves to ask Him to bless all loving relationships. Who is making the distinction?

In my opinion GS 2055 fails to model the Church of England ministering well in England to the people of England. It models the very worst of poor compromises and fails to speak to our nation, to our church or for our church as it it actually is - even in a holding position.

I encourage you not to take note of this report and to vote against it tomorrow and instead call on the Synod and indeed the whole church to be bold, prophetic, inclusive and welcoming - to truly be a church in England for England - and not just certain sections of it.

With every blessing 

Rev'd. Simon Cutmore

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Salt and Light: David Beckham, Corrie Ten Boom & Gram Seed

David Beckham was the guest on the 75th anniversary edition of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. He admitted that he would look forward to the solitude of island life - a contrast to life lived in the media’s gaze - with a cook book as his reading matter and his England caps as his luxury item. The peace and quiet of a desert island is something we might all crave from time-to-time, a much-loved book to read, and a luxury item to enjoy, as we relax alone in the sunshine – idyllic!

However, the reality for most of us is that we live in a world that is fast-paced, full of complexities: Brexit, Trump’s travel ban, and the mosque shooting in Canada – they all point to a world that seems to be changing almost hour-by-hour. Yet, this is the world into which disciples of Christ in 2017 find themselves, and this is the reality into which we are charged to shine.

We meet Jesus this morning having been tempted in the wilderness, then moving into the bustle of ministry. In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ which we hear some of this morning, Jesus reinterprets the nature of power relationships - blessed are the meek not the powerful - for they shall inherit the earth. But just when the crowd begins to wonder if Jesus is coming to sweep the Law away, He points out that He has to come to fulfiil it - in His life and theirs.

Jesus said: You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who hid Jews during the war. She and her family were caught and taken to Ravensbrook concentration camp. Her father and one of her sisters died there. After the war she went to speak to others about forgiveness. She was speaking at a church one day and at the end a man who was coming up to her. She recognised him as one of the cruelest guards from her time in the camp. She felt cold. He told her that he had become a Christian and had received God’s forgiveness and he had prayed that God would allow him to recieve forgiveness from one of his victims.She talks about what happened next below...


Light shines - but if you shade it - the light is simply directed elsewhere. If you shroud it, even if it cannot somehow seep out from around the edges, the light still burns resolute looking for a way to blaze out into the darkness of our lives, our choices, our hatred, our unforgiveness… It was the light of Christ that shone into the dark heart of that guard, possibly from Corrie Ten Boom and her family even whilst they were in the concentration camp, which in turn shone into her life from him years later - allowing her to forgive him.


Jesus said: You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? Jesus calling us salt is a puzzling and rich image - salt is used to cleanse wounds, its used to season food, it’s historically been used to preserve food, it symbolises the covenant relationship of God and His people a few times in the Old Testament. Salt rapidly changes the chemical composition of ice into water, but in dough it not only seasons but it slowly enables that dough to keep more or the CO2 as it rises and to it strengthens and stabilises the whole loaf. But all of this can only happen when it’s not trapped in the cellar or put through the mill. 


Gram Seed knows what it is to be trapped in the cellar of self loathing and he certainly put others through the mill. Brought up in an abusive and ultimately destructive home - he was thrown out onto the street aged 15, ending up in a special youth detention facility. There he became increasingly angry and aggressively anti authority. After being freed he became the worst sort of football hooligan - his body still bearing the scars of stabbings, being bottled and and other unspeakable violence. By the mid 90s he was on the streets living life on the brink as a drug addict and drunk. Some people came and said to him - do you know that Jesus loves you? He chased the away but they kept coming back week after week with the same message. Months later, Gram collapsed and was taken to the hospital in a coma. On the 6th day in hospital he died and given the Last Rites. People gathered with his family to pay their respects including this small group of Christians who had got to know him. They asked whether they could pray for him - to which his mother replied: what good is that going to do? He’s dead. They prayed and as they did Gram came back to life. But he hadn't just revived - he no longer felt the urge to drink or take drugs - he wanted not longer to maim people but help them. The anger and self loathing had gone.  Those Christians on the street mixed into Gram’s world, got to know him and showed him the love of Christ - a love which ultimately healed his emotional wounds and transformed his very make up - strengthening and stabilising his life for good and for the good of others.


Gram Seed

What is Jesus saying to us? You are salt. You are light. These aren’t conditional things with Jesus - they are imperatives. Jesus is being emphatic - be salt; be light, but if we lose our saltiness we are good for nothing; if we hide our light we become pointless. In a dark world feeling like it’s getting darker we need the light. In a bland world of polarising politics we need the seasoning of God’s love. It may not feel like we can make much difference against the back drop of the muslim travel ban or terrorist attrocities in Canada and France; we may feel despondent at where our own Government or indeed denomination is taking us - but then I realised that it only takes one candle to make a difference to the darkness. It only takes a pinch of salt to season and give structure to the bread. You are salt, you are the light - corporately, but individually too…

St Benedict

The Benedictine moto is laborare est orare - to work is to pray. St Benedict encouraged his monks not to withdraw from the complex and difficult world, but to bring the world to God through their prayers, and by surrounding their entire day in regular prayer - everything that they did became an offering back to God. So we should pray - it only takes a little light; a pinch of salt is needed… But having prayed we should also work where God sets us. We may not be able to confront the politics of hate - but we can welcome the stranger and help them become a friend supporting Together 100 of the Catholic Worker Farm’s work with refugees; we can love those whom the church and others tell us are somehow less lovely - those with dementia, ex cons seeking to reintegrate into society, our gay, bi sexual and trans brothers and sister; we can work alongside others to enact justice and forgiveness. It takes one candle, one pinch of salt is needed. But as followers of Jesus they aren’t optional extras. They are visible signs that we are following.





Like David Beckham, we may crave the solitude of the desert island, how much better to be bearers of hope in this world – particularly in a week full of such chaotic headlines. On a deserted island there are no others to shine for, no life to season and strengthen. In fact, it is by being here, that we have the opportunity to shine here; and in doing so, to share the faith we have, so that those around us may also give glory to God.


~~~

If that weren't enough, during the intercessions (where candles were lit and we prayed that we would shine in the darkness), I even snuck in some prog, but it was the only thing we could listen to...