Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Podcast

Colouring In

When I was a child I was told by my teacher, that when I was colouring in, to always try to keep the colour inside the lines. I found this incrediblely hard to do. Regularly, the colour would streak out across the thick black line like a solar flare, a lasting reminder that I had failed. I would feel frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t do it when others could. Why could I not control my hand?

Over time my accuracy increased, my hand/eye coordination improved. Less and less often did I feel ashamed that my pictures were not good enough.  As I grew, I realised that life was about colouring inside the lines whether in mathematics or British Bulldog or with whom I should be friends. Even now as adults, we are still expected to colour in the lines that society draws.

Joseph was not a rule breaker or a dreamer. He coloured inside the lines from an early age. He not only knew how to colour but he knew why. He was a righteous man. He was committed to following the Torah and it’s laws. Where those laws were explicit, following them would have not have been a duty to man like Joseph. It would be a second nature non-negotiable.

Joseph is engaged to Mary. Well it’s more that that. According to the social and religious laws they were as good as married, but had not consummated the marriage. Therefore for your espoused to be pregnant at this stage asked questions of her fidelity. Those colouring within the lines would almost certainly have publicly divorced the unfaithful spouse bringing shame on her and her family.  Joseph was someone who coloured within the lines but something was drawing his hand and his attention elsewhere, even before his angelic visitor arrived.

He resolved to divorce Mary privately, allowing her and her family to maintain some sort of honour. He doesn’t do what was expected by others or by the Law.  In being righteous and yet, even so, unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph hears the call of something deeply counter-cultural for a man like him. And what is so remarkable about him is that he has the wisdom and the courage to follow that call.

Is it any accident that God chose dreams to speak to Joseph? It kinda goes with the name doesn’t it. But if you are good at colouring within the lines of life, perhaps the only way that God can speak to someone like that - to challenge you, to allow your crayon to slip, is in that place where you have no control, where you cannot colour within the lines, where you can obey no rules or laws?

God speaking in dreams has a great and nobel scriptural tradition. Yet we all too often dismiss our dreams as some of the quite frankly bizarre stuff that happens as a consequence of sleep. Dreams are an essential part of keeping our brains healthy, yet because anything can happen in a dream anywhere to anyone; because they sit in the hinterland between the real and the imaginary; because they are just not verifiable by our scientific age - they become a fleeting topic of conversation and then are gone.

Our dreams are formed in the deepest and most intimate parts of our lives.  They are the arena in which our hopes and longings are tried and tested; where our values are forged and where different histories are played out.  Where it is not only ok, but we are positively encouraged to allow our crayon to slip of the lines of life.

God’s dream is a picture covered in crayon marks in the wrong places - streaks of red passion, shafts of blue peace all across every line and all surrounded by the yellows and golds of God’s glory.

As we stand with Joseph at the outer edge of Advent, what dreams do you dream and all too easily dismiss?  What hopes do you quash because they seem all too unlikely? Which people do you exclude or ignore because they don’t fit into the picture that you colouring - because they consistently tell a different truth to yours, because tick a different box at the ballot, because they are gay or straight or black or a woman?  Are they as unlikely as a man who coloured in the lines, a righteous man, still taking this pregnant girl as his wife, are they as unreasonable as as that socially unacceptable child being God with us?

Joseph awoke from sleep and allowed these divine dreams to become a shocking and risky reality - but in so doing - God is with us.  Joseph stood up and was counted by those who coloured in the lines with him - but in so doing - God is with us.  Joseph allowed a tender and growing love for his wife to expand and to embrace a child that was not his own as his son - but in so doing - God is with us.

Most of is spend our lives trying to colour in the lines. If we make a mistake and cross a line we bear the shame of personal or social failure.  Or to put it another way, we can be lulled into a dream of life that must be a marriage, a job, a mortgage, a car, a certain number of children.  

Today, God’s encounter with Joseph reminds us that sometimes we will colour outside the lines, and that despite what others may tell us, we have not failed, we are not unacceptable or to be avoided but we are loved and accepted by Him.  If our inmost longings seem unlikely or our hopes unrealisable, His dreams for us, even in our failures or shame, are far bigger that we thought possible.  For in all things we are surrounded by the yellows and golds of His glory. 

Today, even in the midst of all of that we so often are and always long to be, are willing to allow a different dream, the love God has for us always, to become a reality in our lives - for in so doing God is with us.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Peter Gabriel - In Your Eyes

I've been playing this song pretty much non-stop over the last 12 hours or so. Just such a beautiful song...

"In Your Eyes"

love I get so lost, sometimes
days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
when I want to run away
I drive off in my car
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

in your eyes
the light the heat
in your eyes
I am complete
in your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
in your eyes
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
in your eyes
I see the light and the heat
in your eyes
oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
the heat I see in your eyes

love, I don't like to see so much pain
so much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive

and all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

in your eyes
the light the heat
in your eyes
I am complete
in your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
in your eyes
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
in your eyes
I see the light and the heat
in your eyes
oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light,
the heat I see in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes

Sunday Podcast

Here with audio of this morning's sermon based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12.

Hopes and Dreams

Humour me for a moment. Close your eyes. I’d like you to dream with me a moment and imagine your ideal Christmas. I wonder what you see… A family gathered, no squabbling, instead a gathering permeated with Christmas good cheer, simple but good food. Perhaps it’s bigger - healing and health for someone you love? Spending time with someone you miss?

As December slides us downhill towards Christmas, it’s very hard to hear John the Baptist’s call to repentance above the Christmas music, the whirr of the food processor and the rustle of wrapping paper. It made me wonder what is Advent for?

At it’s most basic level, Advent is a season of expectation and preparation for the coming of Christ - yes Christmas, His Incarnation. Advent is not Christmas lite though, despite Christmas cards, decorations, carols, foodstuffs all having been available for a number of weeks now.  The shops have got right that we are in a period of preparation, but the focus is on feast not on faith or the future.  Today we are reminded that there is more to this season than we have come to assume.

Advent, takes its name from the latin word Adventus, which was the visitation of the Roman Emperor to a community, city or military outpost. A bit like if the Queen was to make a visit to Mill End, there would no doubt be a certain amount of frenetic activity to ensure that the church, grounds, all of you - were scrubbed up well and everything was in it’s proper place. The difference is that the Roman Emperor was absolute power incarnate and if things weren’t just so, or the welcome wasn’t lavish enough - heads would roll… and often did.  Adventus in that sense conjures up images of power, pomp, judgment and fear.

Our Old Testament reading reminds us that the One who’s Adventus we are preparing for, upend our expectations.  He will not judge where He comes by what he sees or by what he hears.  His coming amongst us isn’t about lavish welcomes, or things being polished and scrubbed, or the quality of our carol singing or the size or juiciness of our turkey. His standards are about righteousness - rightness with each other, rightness with God.  It’s about dreaming the bigger dreams that are God’s.

I invited you to imagine at the beginning of this sermon - to dream what your ideal Christmas would look like. Again humour me.  Close your eyes.  Think the things that lies ahead in the next few weeks that need to get done, if you were to have that ideal Christmas that you thought about before but go further that that - what kind of relationships do you want to be part of? What kind of world do you want tot live in this Christmas and beyond?  We are invited to enlarge those dreams this morning, not just for Christmas morning, but for our world.

The Adventus we are edging into is not just about readying ourselves for Christ’s coming amongst us now, but also about His return.  Advent is both and.

When the One who is to come arrives, the order of things as we know them to be in our world will be upended. Predators and prey will live in harmony with each other and with the children of the earth, because the One who is to come does so with a divine authority that will establish a new knowledge, a new experience of, an awareness of the presence of God the Lord.

Again humour me. So you’ve thought about your ideal Christmas and your hopes and dreams for you, your relationships, your community and the world, this morning we need to recognise that some of those dreams of ours we can begin to deal with, others will be more long term, but that there’s probably a gap between what we want and what we hope for.  As we ready ourselves for the One who is to come, this morning John the Baptist reminds us that’s God’s dreams for us are far larger than we first knew.

John stands in Advent calling us to repentance.  This is nothing short of upending our lives, our drives and motives. Repentance is not just saying ‘sorry.’ Repentance is metanoia, from the Greek metanoein ‘to change one's mind.’  Repentance is about recognising the place one is in because of our actions or words and reorienting ourselves in a new Godward direction - realigning our hopes and dreams with His.

To outwardly show that reorientation of life, John offered to baptise people in the river. Baptism, that was normally reserved for prosalytes - Gentiles showing their conversion to Judasim, became to ultimate sign of someone wanting to live out God’s enlarged dreams in the world and reorienting their lives in accordance with those dreams.

John still calls us to repentance. To outwardly demonstrate our affiliation to Christ, but also to continue to put our house in order, to notice the gap between our longings and the longings of God and to reorientate our lives and our drives and motives according to His enlarged dreams.

In that context, repentance is the daily, positive and active choice of the disciple of Jesus, but choosing to live out the hopes and dreams of God is hard.  We can say the general confession in sorrow in church, but not be repentant in our hearts, and leave the presence of the one who is to come, whose Adventus we await, unchanged and unwilling to live a a new way aligned to the dreams of God. If we do not see the new green growth of the repentance in our lives, then we are ultimately as dead as a fruitless apple tree.

What is Advent for then? It us surely the gift of time - time to get ourselves in order for the One who is to come who will bring about a new reality of God in our lives and in our world.  It is about taking time to prepare our hearts and lives to receive that Royal Guest at His first coming and when He comes again.

But Advent also invites us into the kinds of hopes, dreams that the God of the Bible promises all those who are willing to leave their familiar and well-trod paths - and to actively choose to venture down another way. Each time we do so -- each time we hold up our acquired habits and practices and comparing them with our deepest hopes and dreams - we notice a gap - and in that gap we experience the joy of the Advent repentance that John calls us to, a time still marked by our preparation to receive and share the grace and glory of God in the babe of Bethlehem, but also the chance to daily reorientate our lives, to repent and to actively choose the hopes and dreams for each of us and our world as lived out but the One who is to come, the Word made flesh, God with us, our Emanuel. Amen.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The King of Second Chances

In January, when Barack Obama called for the US nation to put pressure on politicians to pass gun control legislation, he warned: "Every day we wait [the number of Americans who die at the end of a gun] will keep growing." While legislation lay orphaned in Congress, 20-year-old Michael Hill walked into Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and "nothing to live for”.

With 870 children inside aged between five and 11 years and Hill confessing that he had not been taking his psychiatric medication, the nation was, in all likelihood, staring down the barrel of yet another horrific school shooting.

Luckily for everybody, Hill took as his hostage the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. 

"We're not going to hate you," she said, referring to him first as "sir" and later as "sweetie" and "baby". "My pastor, he just started this teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord," she recalled admitting she was terrified. "I just sat there and started praying.”

And so in between updates with the 911 dispatcher she shared her own travails with Hill, telling him about her divorce and disabled son, all the while reassuring him. "I love you. I'm proud of you. We all go through something in life. You're gonna be OK. Sweetheart. I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me." Eventually, while keeping police at a distance, she persuaded him to give up his weapons, lie on the floor and give himself up - giving that gunman and herself a second chance.

And we’d all like to have another go at bits of life - things we wished we’d never said or done, people we’d like not to have hurt or isolated.  We’d all like a second chance to say something different…or maybe not say something. A second chance to repair a relationship or make the most of some opportunity. A second chance to chase a dream you deferred or follow through on a responsibility you avoided.

Luke’s account of the crucifixion that we hear this morning is peppered with second chances. The obvious one, of course, is that in this Gospel alone Jesus forgives those who crucify him – all those who crucify him - both the active participants and passive bystanders alike. And then there’s the thief, who names his own sins and yet then asks to be remembered, to have a second chance, only to receive Jesus’ promises that he will join him in paradise.

But that’s not all. Earlier in the story Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him and told him he would have a second chance to return and strengthen the other disciples. And after Jesus is tried by both Pilate and Herod, they receive a second chance at their relationship, actually becoming friends. And, when you think of it that way, Barabbas is also given a second chance when he is released in place of Jesus. Later the crowds who have followed him, at times admiring him and at others jeering him, receive Jesus’ words of consolation and warning and are given another chance to perceive in him God’s active love for the world. Later still, the centurion who put him to death will seize the second chance offered and declare Jesus innocent, and all the world will receive another chance to encounter God personally and directly as the curtain in the Temple separating the ordinary people from God’s most holy presence is torn in two.  

You see every regret we harbour, every, every harsh word to another, every time we are frozen out or lied to, every time we betray someone - every time we look back and long for a second chance - it rends the heart of God…

But Jesus’ death and resurrection don’t just offer us healing and hope a second and final chance from God’s wounded heart of love, but rather that we always have available to us another opportunity for life, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Jesus’ death is according to the rule, order, and expectations of the world. There is nothing terribly unusual about it. People die unjustly all the time. But his resurrection invites us to see it both as ordinary – like our death in all respects – and simultaneously as extraordinary – unlike our death in that it ushers in a new realm and order altogether where death does not have the last word and where our mistakes and regrets no longer define us.

Jesus is not coming to be just one more king, another means of power and rule, but rather that he is ushering in an entirely new order – a world and order and reign and kingdom characterized by new life, hope, grace and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies in extending and receiving second chances.

We do not experience the fullness of this kingdom in this life, but we do get glimpses of it – foretastes of the kingdom, as our hymns and liturgy sometimes remind us – each and every time we hear Jesus’ words of absolution and promise of paradise directed not only to the crowds of his day but also to us.

I’d like you to invite you to call to mind one of those things for which you long to have a second chance so that you might take seriously whatever regret or disappointment you harbor and then take just as seriously the second chance and new life Jesus offers us from the cross…
This One, you see, strung up by the Empire for treason and insurrection is, as it turns out, not merely challenging the orders of the world but overturning them altogether and establishing a new reign governed not by might, power and judgment but rather by love, mercy and grace. For he is the King, reigning from his unlikely throne, granting second chances to us all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

As the Feast of Christ the King looms gloriously...

Wait Here

Sunday Podcast

Better late than never!  Here's the audio of Sunday's sermon...

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

Are we in the end times?  When we hear about natural disasters, like that which has devastated the Philippines in recent days, our minds might be taken back to passages like this morning’s Gospel reading.  I am sure that there will be street corner preachers still who will tell us that if we stop long enough to listen.

Looking more closely at this morning’s Gospel reading, I not sure that’s what Jesus meant.  You see He flatly refuses to answer his disciples questions for clarity and timescales after He refers to a coming time when the Temple will be razed to the ground.

Herod’s newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was the enormously impressive focal point of the religion of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in the centre, the Holy of Holies, and so the Temple enshrined the sacred commandments of God and was the place where the presence of God was focused. It was to the Temple in Jerusalem that the pilgrims journeyed for the religious festivals. In post-exilic times, the Temple was presented as the place of true worship of God. In this context it was natural for pilgrims to admire the beauty of the building dedicated to God, and to look for spiritual leadership there. As God was eternal, so was this holy place.

But Jesus’ actions in cleansing the Temple (19.45-46) had challenged the power of the temple authorities. He had had arguments with different factions among the temple leadership and, in this context, predicted that the Temple itself would be destroyed. Jesus was talking particularly about the fall of Jerusalem, after a lengthy and indeterminate period of time, rather than the end of all things.

Instead of answering his disciples questions about dates and times, Jesus mentions other scenarios where other things are razed to the ground - his disciples’ beliefs, political ideologies and nation states, even their own relationships will be fractured and destroyed.

This starts to sound like an unnervingly contemporary gospel reading.  If something as eternal as God’s Temple will crumble and fall, what else will? The occupying Romans forces that filled the land in Jesus’ day? The corrupt tax system that kept the poorest poor and the richest rich?  David Cameron’s coalition Government? The United Nations? The NHS?  Jesus is questioning the permanence of power and ultimately asking each one of us, that when it comes to it, when our world is shaken, where we each place our trust?

We have seen in recent years ourselves, that institutions that we thought were effectively eternal can come crashing down with disastrous concequences.  We were just as naive to assume that the banking sector was somehow immune to the rise and fall of markets and the corrupt dealings of broken people and look what has happened since.

The devastation in the Philippines is not a sign of the end of the world, or of the judgement of God, although it will feel like it to the millions caught up in it.  Our hearts go out to them in love and compassion as the world which they now has come crashing down.  Their plight is a sign, a reminder, to all of us of the transience of all things.  Our hearts go out to them beating with a simple common humanity - giving what we can and praying.

When our lives our shaken who do we trust? Our politicians? The banks? Our religious leaders?  When grief or illness, knock us flat; when others shun us or  tell lies about us; when institutions fail us where are we?

Instead of timetables to destruction, Jesus talks to us about trusting in him. In the face of tragedy and transience the heart of God continues to beat with an eternal love for humanity.

Jesus talks about a series of terrible events – wars, famines, earthquakes and plagues, the destruction of powerful institutions, not to mention changes in the pattern of the natural world and the fracture of relationships. Any one of these events would be enough to fill us mind with worry - never mind to experience any of them. But Jesus also speaks of a God who loves, and goes on loving in the midst of it all, a God will keep us safe for ever.

In the midst of trauma, turmoil and tragedy, God says ‘not a hair of your head will perish’. 

then invite people to touch their own hair for a moment (on their head or arm) and experience what a fragile thing one hair is, yet it is a sign of the attention of love that God gives us. I then prayed:

Heavenly Father,
when we consider the times in which we live 
and the events that occur, 
it is easy to be anxious or in despair. 
Thank you for the assurance of your presence and peace, 
even at those times when there is chaos and discord.
Enable us to see the world through your eyes, 
where, as a Sovereign Lord, 
you are firmly in control of all events,
and there is a purpose and a plan to all things.
This we ask in Jesus’ precious name. 


I couldn't help but think of this song too...

Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints - Losers For Christ

Today as we celebrate the lives of the holy men and women of God is not the time to think about what made them holy.  That’s easy - God.  On this All Saints Sunday we should dwell more of what makes them and each of us human.

What are the universal human traits? Robert Peston, the BBC business editor reflected on it all recently in an article (you can read it here) he wrote about a year on from the death of his wife Sian Busby.

One of those traits is bravery. He reflects, very movingly, how brave she was in the face of terminal illness, 

… Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful? … [She] was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know…’

It’s all too easy though to think of the Saints in their humanity as being nice people, people ‘like us’, people who we’d invite for dinner, and yet St Luke’s account of Jesus’ words this morning should bring us up short.

St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you see, contains language that is just familiar enough to us that we can easily read or listen to it without really paying attention. We tend to hear it through Matthew’s better-known version, where the poor are poor in spirit, and those who hunger and thirst do so for the sake of righteousness. But not so in Luke. In Luke they’re just poor and hungry and hated -- vagrant beggars who can’t sustain themselves, can’t provide for themselves, are hard to look at, and are a drain on the system.

The Greek word that Luke uses to describe the poor is ptochoi. The ‘Pt’ sound should take us back to words like Pterodactyl. It’s not that the poor are dinosaurs or dying out, in these austere days - far from it - rather the poor swirl around the marketplace like birds pecking up stray crumbs or any charity they can.

The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek words for vertigo in the face of falling. It would remind Jesus’ hearers that for the poor, life is risky tightrope walk.

Jesus’ words of blessing are picking up body and character. The people who are blessed are not simply an economic class characterized by their net worth, they are people who must compete against each other, swirling and skittering in the imposed act of begging. They are people who embody signs of how easily any one of us might fall.
The ‘Pt’ sound also lies at the heart of Greek word “ptuo,” which means “I am spitting.”

Blessed are the spat-upon.  There’s a blessing to stop your heart.

Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are impossibly weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

In short, the Saints we remember today, the poor, the broken, the lonely, the insecure, those we’d just rather avoid, are losers. And yet Jesus calls them blessed, holy, favoured by God, Saints. Why? Simply because God always reserves God’s most acute attention for those in need, those left behind by the powers that be, those left out of the lavish bounty of the world’s produce. Sometimes called God’s preferential treatment of the poor, at other places epitomized by recognizing that God is always on the side of the underdog, God’s unfailing and unflagging concern for the losers of this world is etched across the pages of Scripture in letters deep and clear enough for anyone willing to read.

And in case we’re not sure, Jesus goes on not only to uplift the poor and hungry and those hated for his sake, but also to warn those who are rich.

 This is, of course, a challenging verse for most of us to hear. For even after a multi-year recession and nearly imperceptible recovery most of us are still far better off than the vast majority of the world’s population.

Is that part of the reason it’s hard for us to identity with the people Jesus lifts up? Have we worked hard enough to attain a measure of security that hearing Jesus affirm what we have tried to avoid is unthinkable? Do we fail to recognize in the face of poverty near and abroad the face of our Lord, beckoning us to do with less that others may have more? Or does the idea of that kind of vulnerability -- the kind imposed, not chosen, by poverty, hunger, and persecution -- simply make us shrink back and fail to recognize our own vulnerability and need.

We need to recognise that we are losers. We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us otherwise. We dress well. We live in nice homes. We work hard to be upwardly mobile. But no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, still find it hard to love ourselves or others, still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground. We, too, are losers, and unless we recognize and confess that -- not as something to be ashamed of, but as one of the defining elements of our existence -- we will have a hard time receiving the mercy and forgiveness, grace and life Jesus offers.

When we consider the lives of those the church traditionally calls Saints, what strikes me first is how very ordinary most of them were ….from that clutch of Galilean fishermen to a consumptive French nun, from a wounded soldier who spent most of his time dreaming of damsels in distress to a forthright Albanian with a genius for spotting Christ in the slums of Calcutta. None of them looked in the least remarkable – they didn't start out as super-holy beings.  They were losers for Christ, accepting His gift of grace, and in so doing, they found themselves transformed.

On this All Saints Sunday, we thank God for His transforming grace at work in people past as well as in us today as we seek to follow Him. We pray that we would not squander His grace to us, but rather that we let it transform us with the poor, the hated, the grieving amongst us, to be Saints - fellow losers for Christ.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Albums of the year 2013

As a real-life Vicar, I was chatting with a friend the other day and we acknowledged that when the church reaches Harvest Thanksgiving, the liturgical year is on a slippery slope non-stop to Advent then Christmas, after which it is full pelt to Easter. Only then is their some respite as we enjoy (endure) weeks of green '(Extra)Ordinary time' until the cycle begins all over again...

If none of that made any sense at all, it was a Vicary way of acknowledging that the end of the year is almost upon us.

I have blogged a lot of my church life over the years, but latterly music, which runs through me like the word 'Blackpool' does through rock, has become more and more important. Is this my mid-life crisis; me grasping at the straws of life, trying to relive my teenage past? That my dear reader is the stuff of another blog.

I was at a training day the other day and we were asked to reflect on what energises us. What renews us as us to give us something by way renewing what we give back to the parish coal-face. I realised again how important music really is to me. My friend Chris McGarel describes himself as a musicophile - I can identify with that.

Anyway, back to the point.  The end of the year is almost upon us, so I thought I would blog about the albums  have been important to me this year - this won't be an entirely '2013 best of list' but will include stuff that has moved me deeply this year. Over the next few weeks expect incoherent mumblings about Steven Wilson's 'The Raven That Refused to Sing', Leprous' 'Coal, Sanguine Hum's 'The Weight of the World', Lifesign's s/t album and Days Between Station's 'In Extremis', Marillion's 'Sounds That Can't Be Made', Breaking Orbit's 'Time Traveller', Rush's 'Clockwork Angels', 'Kairos 4Tet's 'Everything We Hold', and Mark Lockheart's 'In Deep' to name but a few.

So to the first... Haken's 'The Mountain.

To say that I was excited at this release is an understatement.  A few years back I would have dismissed their combination of tight riffage, circus music, great hooks, harmonies as a cacophonous howl (great name for a band btw) but thanks almost single-handedly to my mate Matt Spall - I began to be reeled in.

Firstly the almost completeness of 'Visions' emblazoned itself on my heart and brain to find it vying for top table with it's predecessor 'Aquaris'.  Both albums full of metal credentials, hooks that sink deep, intricate riffs and all enough all round musicality in one member of the band to make whole groups weep tears of joy.

'The Mountain' does not disappoint and scales new heights (see what I did there?) It builds on it's predecessors pop sensibilities combined with arrangements to feel like they were all put in a pot and shaken up and tipped out to form songs. Atlas Stone veers from wide screen prog, to modern jazz and tips it's hat to 60's tinged Motown.

Cockroach King's acapella introduction almost bobs into slowed down reggae, before schmoozing into lounge jazz and back into the wide-screen prog with majestic vocal harmonies.

In Memorium's opening piano/keyboard/guitar riff nods at Muse and promptly bests them with riffage which forces the listen to bang their head.

Because It's There begins with a haunting solo vocal which then makes Haken sound like a monastic choir and then Queen. Amid and simple guitar, riff, funky bass playing and simply beautiful chorus, the song is deliriously poppy and yet is far from throw-away.

Then Falling Back to Earth stomps in - technically astonishing riffing more chunky than a Yorkie bar lead the listener into some pretty heavy music and some beautifully harmonised vocals and into some pretty strange musical territory indeed including referencing that circus style music again.

As Death Embraces breathes and oozes as an antidote. It's beauty is almost crystalline, carried on the simplicity of a gorgeous piano melody.

This is followed by the, quite frankly progtastic track Pareidolia - Middle Eastern melodies infused with riffs that would not be out of place on an album by a Norwegian Black Metal band and a bouzouki solo to boot.

Somebody feels an uncomplicated poppy rock song. But only the scantiest listen reveals layer upon layer to the arrangement of the song. Beguiling.

The Path Unbeaten reprises the Path's opening piano melody and feels like the perfect epilogue, but it is no reprise. Over piano, come strings and then french horns. Positively orchestral.

The album closes with Nobody. 12 string guitar invites the listener into what feels like the prog equivalent of the heart wrenching tales told by many a folk song. Piano adds texture and urgency. But this is a Haken album, and the track builds and builds into a restrained climax that would make the most hardened metal fan cry like a baby.

What more can I say? This is not an album to put on in in the background. It demands your full attention, and the listener is rewarded on repeated listens - like admiring a fine painting the viewer notices new things on repeated viewings.  The listener will be forced to return to climb 'The Mountain' again and again noticing new musical textures and astonishing chops from the members of a band at the top of their game.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sound of Contact - Pale Blue Dot (Live)

The sound distorts in places, but this track (which I understand is to be the next single (from their debut  'Dimensionaut' album) shows the exceptional quality of Sound of Contact.

SoC have been kicking around my the peripherals of my prog world for a bit and I had listened to the album but I have only recently actually purchased a copy.  It is fair to say that I am gutted that I hadn't bought it sooner! It's full of fantastic hooks, pop melodies and prog sensibilities - and with Simon Collins (son of Phil) it was always going to.

Go ahead and enjoy, and buy yourself a copy of the album sooner than I did!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Evensong - Wheathampstead Deanery Evensong

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic archbishop of Manila who played a key role in the People Power revolution there, liked to tell the story of a woman who attended his weekly audience to inform him she had a been having visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, ‘We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and message from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask the Virgin Mother to ask her son Jesus about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask Our Lady and she tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.’

“The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, ‘Well, did you ask Our Lady to ask her Son about my sin?’ ‘I did’ she replied. ‘And did she answer?’ he asked.  ‘Yes’ she responded. ‘What did she say?’ ‘She said that Jesus said that he couldn’t remember.’

Jesus said: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

We are reminded tonight of the extent of the love that Christ has for each of us - we are not servants any longer, not knowing what our Master does, but we are called friends because we know for ourselves the extent and depth of His love and forgiveness for us.

Jesus gives His friends a new commandment - to love one another. Previously God’s people had been called to honour His presence in their lives with a range of thousands of rules and prohibitions, marking out their distinctiveness amongst the vast array of neighbouring peoples, languages and religions.

Questions about the heart of those commands rose from time to time. Even Jesus was asked about it once - His reply was that the heart of the matter was about loving God with all that you are and loving your neighbour as yourself.  The new commandment that Jesus gives here - loving one another - takes this all to a new, more personal plane.  If we love this way, we are called friends of Jesus.

There was someone I was at theological college with called Rita.  She had spent quite a bit to time learning with and from the Mennonites. For those of you who haven’t come across the Mennonites, they have a particular renown for teaching and living lives of non-violence and love. Anyway, after some time at the Mennonite centre in London, She and a member of the community were making their way across London on the tube. As they came down one escalator, they saw a man being mugged. As quick as a flash, desperate to put into practice what she had been learning - as the attacked man lay on the floor - Rita loved the mugger hard by beating him with her handbag. Much to everyone’s surprise though, the Mennonite brother she was with, didn’t do the same, but lay down on top of the other man, protecting him and getting a good kicking in the process.

Hearing Jesus command us to love one another may conjure up all sorts of associated images in our heads - someone ordering us us to action or of a distant God issuing written in stone rules.  Jesus commanding us to love seems a bit anachronistic until we realize that a command, like the outcome to love one another, is about gathering people.  A commandment - from the Latin comandare - is something that is entrusted to us, committed to us, enjoined to us. It’s something that flows naturally and instinctively from us - like that Mennonite brother protecting the person being attacked - literally laying down his life - our love for one another is a defining characteristic of our relationship with Jesus; through our demonstration of that love, the world can come to know what we know.

Living and loving this this way, Jesus calls us His friends - literally his philios - his beloved ones.  Our friendships can be our most intimate and enduring of relationships. They are intentional. ‘You can choose your friends. You cannot choose your family.’ Jesus chooses us and loves us. So we love in return.

Only one other person in scripture is called a friend of God - was Abraham. Moses comes a close second when on the mountain in Exodus 33, God speaks with him as one does with a friend.  Such is the love that Christ has for us that we are called His friends and there are no lengths he would not go for us - even to the cross.

For many of us, living and loving the way of God is hard - something that Jesus warns us.  The decision before us tonight is, as it was before Nehemiah concerning rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, are we prepared to continue in the face of adversity, in the face of distraction, in the face of oppression, trusting God regardless of what others may think of us? And what lasting legacy are we building - walls and masks of protection to defend us from the sniping of others, or as Jesus’ friends with hearts open afresh to His command to love to be lived and shared with all?

Sunday Podcast - a week late!

Here is last week's sermon... better late than never!

The text follows based on 2 Timothy 1:1-14...

I wonder what you would consider your treasure to be? For some of us, talk of treasure takes us away to a deserted islands and undecipherable maps.  But talk of treasure can also leap from the page of fiction into the real world - I was talking with 2 different people this week - one of whom was semi serious that their problems and that of others would be resolved if they won the lottery. The other person was telling me about a dream they had had about finding treasure in the garden whilst they were digging the vegetables - aware that they had to declare it as treasure trove, but they also decided that it would ‘help’ if they squirreled some of the horde away and declare the rest.

At the end of this part of the second letter to Timothy, he is encouraged to guard the treasure entrusted to him, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Not a gold dubloon or diamond ring in sight.  The treasure is, of course the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Guard it well.

Perhaps I should sit down and we all say amen? This Gospel that we have received and know is an immense treasure - the resources for life in the now and in the yet to come. And yet all too often, this is how we treat the Gospel of Jesus - good news for all - as treasure to be kept hidden from others, safe to oneself.  Mostly out of concern of what others will think of us perhaps.

This talk of safekeeping of treasure is in marked contrast though to the corporate language Paul uses to talk of the treasure itself - faith in God through Jesus Christ.  Paul talks of his worship of God being a collective activity not just with others now, but in line with that of his ancestors.  Something that he does in tradition - amongst a long line of others.

He also writes of Timothy’s faith in familial terms - it being a faith first of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  A faith that Timothy grew up aware of and surrounded by.  Paul is sure that this faith is now Timothy’s own too.
But this faith is not a treasure that can be earned or found.  The Gospel is treasure that is shared with us freely by God - and as treasure it should be preserved but not risked or innovated if you will.

This treasure is not gold or silver but news of a new reality - a breaking of the power of death, of an assurance of life and immortality, through the power and purposes of God alone - of His unmerited grace to us.  Paul encourages Timothy (and his church) to return to (to rekindle) this treasure that is within through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In 21st Century Britain, news of this sort of faith is often seen as quite frankly a bit bonkers.  In fact is always has been this way and in the most extreme cases - has led to persecution, imprisonment, torture and death of Jesus’ followers.

In a recent video posted on the Guardian website, the comedian Milton Jones reminded us that our faith is a bit weird - that the Jesus that Paul writes of here, came to identify with the poor and downtrodden,and yet His chief representatives today live in palaces and wear big pointy hats...  Yet it is the implications of this faith, it’s outworking, that Paul is really interested in and encourages Timothy to treasure.

All too often we forget this ourselves.  The faith that Paul encourages Timothy to rekindle is life changing and community transforming.  Over the centuries this lived faith lead to the beginnings of science, the abolition of slavery, began the systems of Government that we take for granted, undergirds popular notions of decency, lead to the emancipation of women, underlies the judicial system, built schools and hospitals, painted art, made music and is the basis of the moral code of many...  A bit weird maybe, but society and culture shaping.

Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful to the teaching and experience of faith in Jesus that he received from him and his own family - to guard this treasure. To ensure that it is kept safe, untarnished, unaltered like piece of priceless jewelry, but not to be locked away. To mix metaphors, this faith, this gift of God, is to be constantly rekindled. Like a fire, if it is not tended it will go out. But if it is cared for, sticks placed on it, the right amount of oxygen able to get to it, the flames will become stronger and hotter and can be used to heat and cook -  to transform other things.

We may not see the faith alive in us as leading to history-making moments like the abolition of slavery, but with the Holy Spirit burning in each of us by virtue of our baptisms, kindled and kept through worship, reading the scripture, sharing the Eucharist - who knows what God might do? 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Airbag - White Walls live at Borgen Studios

A much more chilled way to start the day - Norway's Airbag.

I hadn't come across this glorious noise til some friends on twitter mentioned them. One person described this song as if David Gilmore played guitar for early Porcupine Tree.

I love this...  What do you think?

Monday, September 30, 2013

UNEVEN STRUCTURE - Frost/Hail (Official HD Video - Basick Records)

I stumbled into this band via the 'related artists' function on Spotify.

I have a growing love of technical metal, especially the Meshuggah-influenced branch that some call djent. It is definitely progressive in that it pushes the boundaries of traditional extreme metal but weaves into it some very interesting textures and tempos from the world of prog.

Bands like Tesseract are leading a wave of new djent bands, but I keep coming back to the sadly relatively unknown Uneven Structure for my fix.

I hope you enjoy!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Podcast

Enochian Theory - Inversions

The musical accompaniment to this morning's sermonating has been both albums by this wonderful band.  This track gives a taster of what 'Life... And All It Entails' sounds like - lush, emotional with arrangements as tight as a well turned snare skin.

As strange as it may seem, but I blame there being so much great prof around at the moment, I had pretty much forgotten about the band and their wonderful sound. I am very pleased to rediscover them!

Oh, and what a noise from only a three piece!

Under the Tree

'Girl Under Tree' by Kirsten Nolte

Some research was done in the US into the nature and location of accidents  20% of all fatal accidents occur in cars. 17% of all fatal accidents occur at home. 14% of all fatal accidents occur to pedestrians. 16% of all fatal accidents happen in planes, trains, or boats. Only .001% of all deaths occur in church and these are related to previous physical disorders. So the safest place to be anytime is in church. So welcome back! It could save your life!

This morning we hear Jesus having a bit of backwards and forwards with a man called Nathanael.  We know very little about Nathanael in real terms. Was he a close follower of Jesus or is it more likely that he was an outsider?  We just don’t know - what we come to discover throughout the story of Jesus’ life contained in the Bible - is that Jesus is ready to speak about to, and reveal to anyone, the love of God, it didn’t matter who you are: rich or poor, faithful or uncertain, male or female, Jewish or not. 

Jesus sees Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. Such trees could be tall and obviously provided fruit. They also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It was a common occurrence for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, to think and to wrestle with the issues of life. John in his writing makes us aware that Jesus makes reference to the fact that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. These may be a clear indication that Nathanael was troubled. Is he seeking guidance? Was he feeling a bit lost?  Was Nathanael wrestling with who this man Jesus really was?  Somehow in the conversation that Jesus has with him, the penny drops and the light of faith comes on for Nathanael.

I’d like to think that Nathanael was pondering the big stuff of life under the fig tree that day and I warm to him because he wrestled with life and faith.  Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel.

As I made way to church on a Sunday in another parish, I would sometimes encounter a neighbour either tending his garden or loading his golf clubs into the boot of his car. ‘Off to church?’ he’d ask.  ‘Yes,’ I’d reply, ‘Cutting the grass/Off to the course?’ I’d ask in reply. ‘Yes, and you can worship God in the garden or on the golf course as much as you can in church’ he said.  ‘Yes, but do you?’ I asked back...

Yes, Jesus does come to meet us where we are, whether in church or on the golf course.  Wherever He meets us our lives are never all sewn up.  As we sit here this morning, we bring with us all sorts of things playing on our minds, things troubling us, causing us grief. We may be here not really sure what we believe about Jesus or what he taught or anything else for that matter. We may be concerned about the health of a loved one, the future of a job, how we’ll put food on the table this week. These worries can bring us down and often we may feel that church is the last place we want to be, coming burdened with all of this.  But far from it.

The Eucharist that we share in this morning is sometimes called the Mass.  That name in turn comes from the Latin word ‘Missa’, which means ‘I send.‘  As Jesus meets us here as we are, with our joys and sorrows and offers forgiveness, healing and hope, speaking to us in the words of the scriptures and offering us himself in bread and wine as food for the journey of life, He sends us out into life - equipped for the week and for whatever is thrown at us.  The more worries and stressed we are about life, the more I am convinced that we need this service.

The thing is, no one is judging you as you come here.  The church is not made up of the good, holy and the true, but broken and failing people, lovely as they are - in fact far from it.

When I was a Curate I remember going to a meeting in a local school whose head teacher was a keen Baptist. In the course of the meeting he was verbally assaulted by someone who accused him and all religious types of going to church because they thought they were better than everyone else. To which he calmly replied, with great dignity, “the reason, sir, that I am a Christian is that I know that I as much a sinner as the next man.”  And this Jesus meets us where we are, sinners, under the metaphorical fig tree and here in this Eucahrist - and from here He sends us out resourced, renewed, forgiven and restored.

Under that tree, Jesus reveals to Nathanael greater insight as to who He is. No longer is a ladder needed between heaven and earth with angelic messengers traveling to and fro. Now the Messiah Himself is the meeting point of our questioning human need and divine blessing. 

Our places of meeting, our church buildings can be places for us to sit and shelter from the pressures of every day living. They can offer that space and safety to consider the questions of life. Jesus is happy to engage with all, those who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or where ever. 

You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubt and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. Are you seeking to connect with the Jesus who is the meeting point of our human need and the divine blessing of God?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Money, money, money...

Here's the text of last Sunday's sermon...

Money – most of us think it’s the key to everything. Success, happiness, a stress free life, but if we’re not careful it can also open the door to ruin, deception, corruption and greed. Jesus has much to say to us about our attitude towards wealth and stewardship – 19 of His 38 recorded parables are on the misuse of money and possessions, its an issue of fundamental importance to the Kingdom. Its not that Jesus is against us owning things - its just that He is against things owning us.

This morning’s Gospel contains probably one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to understand. At first sight it looks as if Jesus is condoning corrupt practices, but when we look a bit closer we realize He’s not, and what is actually being applauded is the steward’s change in attitude.

This parable takes full account of the commercial practices of the day – when many of the estates and businesses were owned by absentee landlords and looked after by stewards whose job it was to provide a reasonable return for the owner. In this case it was a business where merchants received goods on credit, and since Jewish Law prevents the claiming of interest from fellow Jews, the profit from such a transaction were in commodities like wheat and oil.

Although the steward was entrusted with the estate - given latitude to do with the owners resources as he wished and to profit from the way he invested his master’s wealth – he owned nothing of what he managed. But one of the surprising things about this story is that the hero seems to be a crook – a crook who has been found out.
The owner had received complaints that his steward was squandering away his property – so he called him to account and when he was found wanting, promptly told him that he was heading for the high jump.

Here the Hebrew word used for “squandering’ is the same as that used in the story of the Prodigal Son – to describe self indulgence - when the younger son wasted away his inheritance. Jesus’ parable shows us what happens if we fail to use our resources in the right way before God.

Like the steward, we have free access to use and profit from the gifts and resources God provides for this world, but own nothing of what we manage and like the steward we too fall far short of what is required.

The unjust steward was too proud to beg and didn’t relish the thought of doing manual work, so he decided on another course of action, to make friends with the people who were in debt to his master. He used this last opportunity as the legal manager of the owner’s business to meet with some of his masters customers, to give them very significant discounts, so that they will show him favour when he is in need. Here Jesus tells us that we have to be alert to the workings of this world and the opportunities we are given, “...For in dealing with their own kind the children of this world are more astute than the children of light...” 

The story also illustrates the wisdom of spending money with an eternity in view using our wealth to help those around us. “...Use worldly wealth to win friends for yourself so that when money is a thing of the past you may be received into an eternal home...”

The biggest thing about handling God’s resources is the attitude of our hearts. It determines how wisely we use what we have been given. When we borrow something from someone, such as a car, we tend to use it more carefully, work harder to look after it, we know it doesn’t belong to us and that we will be accountable for how we use it. Jesus tells us we need to apply that same attitude to all of God’s treasures that we handle.

The steward saw the urgency of the situation and changed his behaviour. Instead of investing in his present situation he started to invest in his future. Jesus also tells us that stewardship is not just about the big picture. If we are faithful with a little God knows we will be faithful with a lot. If we can be trusted with looking after one lost sheep, maybe eventually we will be trusted with caring for a whole flock. Here we have a man who found himself, came to his senses, and changed his direction and life. He didn’t put his head in the sand, but decided to act for his future well-being, he realized he was a slave to the wrong master, “...No servant can serve two masters – you cannot serve God and Money...”

Jesus reminds us that our commitment to God must be greater than any other commitment in our lives. Jesus is looking for single minded people - people totally dedicated to God - whose main purpose in life is to serve Him.

As Christians, our first priority should be using the resources that God gives us, to and through his church in the first instance, but are we? Just over 60% of our expenditure costs go toward my stipend, pension, housing & contributions to my ongoing training and the training of new clergy and us paying our part of the cost of running the diocese. We are not living extravagantly, yet we are struggling to make ends meet and with 2 large restoration projects at St Peter’s and St Thomas’, the possibility of new lighting at St Peter’s, the costs incurred with the arrival of a new Assistant Curate and potentially in time associated costs with providing parish-wide youth work, we need to look carefully at our expenditure. Our issue is not a need to make efficiency savings. The issue is that the money we spend comes from nowhere else but ultimately from us. But these resources are God’s and we should ask Him for them, but we should continue to act wisely with the resources He shares with us.

Where does our confidence for living come from - our bank balance or from God? Has money got greater control over us than we are prepared to admit?

A well known speaker stood up in front of a group of people and held a £50 note in the air, “who would like to have this £50 note?” he said. Hands started to go up, “I will give this to one of you,” he said, “but before I do, I am going to crumple it up”, which he did. “Who wants it now?” Again, hands went up. Then he dropped it on the floor, stamped on it, and made it dirty, “Now who still wants it”, he said, still hands went up. “Today”, he said, “we have learnt a very valuable lesson. No matter what I do to this money, we still want it, because it has not lost any of its value - its still worth £50.”

Many times in our lives we will be dropped, crumpled, ground into the dirt, by the decisions we make, and the situations that come our way. But no matter what happens to us, we will never lose our value in God’s eyes. To Him we are still priceless.

Do we value God as much as He values us? Does God take first place in our hearts? Do we serve God or money? We are all guilty of squandering the wealth we’ve been entrusted with. The question is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to wait till the last minute, like the unjust steward, or change now?
Jesus calls us to use our gifts and resources wisely – and in a way that will honour God and ourselves. To invest in the ways that will lead us to Him and eternal life. Its God who puts the money and resources in our hands – so lets make sure we use them for His glory.


As a footnote, as a die hard prog fan, all this talk of cash made me think of this...