Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mary: A Model For Teenage Discipleship

Robin King was 13 years old when he discovered that he was adopted and his response to the news? He and a friend fled home and cycled from London to Southend where they slept in a tent for a few days before they were picked up by the police. The news didn’t prevent him marrying, having children and eventually finding good work as an architect.

It was only later in life whilst applying for a passport that further startling news about his identity was shared with him - that he had been abandoned as a kid outside the Peter Robinson department store - which is why he was named Robin and his middle name is Peter. In his quest for meaning and roots he eventually found out that his parents were Douglas and Agnes Jones - he was Canadian and serving in the airforce in Glasgow during WW2. They met and married and after the war moved back to Canada. But Robin will never know why he was given up for adoption as they’ve both subsequently died.

Families can be a complex web of relationships and they’re often far from straight forward. Many of my friends had a stream of ‘Aunts’ and ‘Uncles’ who I later discovered weren’t actually aunts and uncles but close family friends and I eventually became and ‘uncle’ too. But families can be places of pain with relatives being cut out and ostracised for years maybe permanently for all sorts of reasons. And yet despite the challenges and sometimes in spite of them, they are the places where we are formed as adults.

Mary’s shocking news from the angel Gabriel was foretold. Back in the 8th century BC, the nation of Judah was faced with invasion by it’s northern neighbour Israel.  The prophet Isaiah is sent to King Ahaz of Judah with a message that God will destroy Judah’s enemies.  Isaiah tells the King to ask God for a sign that this will be fulfilled. The King says he will not test God, and Isaiah responds that God will give him a sign whatever: ‘a young woman will conceive and bear a son who will be named Immanuel and before he knows right from wrong, desolation will come upon the land.’ An odd sign by any standard.  But the word ‘young woman’ ‘almah’ does not mean virgin but maybe a girl who has not yet had a child. The significance of this prophesy of a young woman with child, when looked at through the lens of the history of Christian faith, brings Mary and the infant Jesus she bears into sharp focus, but to King Ahaz, the prophesy’s focus is that before the child (whoever it is) is very old, his kingdom will fall.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. This is how we often perceive Mary. Submissive. Trusting. Passive. Back in October, in the wake of celebrity sex scandals, a campaign began on the internet through facebook and twitter using the #Metoo hashtag, giving a voice to women who have experienced sexual harassment in some way. Some of the stories were really shocking and it exposed how ingrained this sort of behaviour by some men still is. Did Mary say #Metoo? There is a moment in this morning’s Gospel reading where a girl just being ushered into womanhood is encountered by a powerful masculine figure who tells her what will happen to her body in the most intimate ways.

Just sit with this uncomfortable notion a moment before rushing to tell me that contemporary notions of consent don’t apply here or that God knew that she would say yes. Mary knew what all this meant. She ‘got’ the biology of it all. And yet in her questioning ‘how can this be’ I meet a young woman who is totally ok with challenging patriarchal and even divine assumed power and come away unscathed.

For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, in her we find a role model of faithful discipleship especially for our young people, because in her puzzlement at Gabriel’s greeting and her disbelief of his message, I see a pattern for youth in the church today. Mary questioned the message of Gabriel and the action of God in her life, and it was ok. It is ok if you, especially as a young person, come to these oft told stories of the faith of your parents or grandparents generation, and ask: is it true? Mary sought to understand for herself. As the adults of the community of faith - the angelos - the bringers of the message of love from God for all - our responsibility to our young people is to allow these questions, not to close them down. To hear them. Not to be afraid of them.

For us who honour Mary in the story of our faith, this morning I don’t hear of a submissive girl, but of a young woman willing to question, and open to being empowered, perhaps literally inspired, by God. Gabriel uses the word ‘overshadowed.’ In English this has all sorts of negative connotations to do with insignificance, a lack of joy or success, and this feeds an image of a submissive and passive Mary in the presence of a powerful God. We must not let our young people be dominated or conformed by us as adults or by their peers. In scripture the the image of the cloud is not a dark but a bright one that lead the Israelites by day as they sojourned in the wilderness and that enveloped Jesus on the mountain top. We must allow our young people to explore the wilderness and lush pasture of life and faith trusting in both places God comes and leads His people. Mountain climbing is hard work - we must celebrate with them when they triumph over adversity or have extraordinary experiences of God that we cannot understand or comprehend.

As Gabriel shares news of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, there is a hint that they stand in a line with Sarah and Hannah long before them, of God by the Spirit bringing about the biologically impossible. For Luke, the Holy Spirit brought all things into being in the first Creation, and it will be the same Spirit that fills disciples at Pentecost which ushers in the New Creation wrought by Jesus’ resurrection. Gabriel says that Mary will be enveloped by the presence of the God of Israel who faithfully led and kept her ancestors, and she will be anointed by the Holy Spirit. The only other person to experience the Spirit in this way up to this point was King David. Through God, Mary is brought into David’s line, so that the New Creation and the Kingdom of God are revealed to and through her. That is why I believe she said yes to Gabriel.

How can we be like Gabriel, angelos - messengers of good news with the  young people in our churches? How can we each share and show the love of God to them? How can we like Elizabeth and Sarah and Hannah before them, walk with our youth as they journey through the wilderness or climb life’s mountains?  Mary’s yes, rose out of an assurance that God had kept and led those before her - how can we share our own faith stories with our youth today? Above all else we must pray that that same Holy Spirit that came upon Mary, would fill and transform our young people today - calling them into the Kingdom and filling them with the hope of the New Creation.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Ahhhh, my much missed blog. It's not that I've not had stuff to say as such, it's been the fact that I have been processing stuff differently of late. I also haven't shared any sermons here for quite some time. Here though is SUnday's for Advent 3 based on the reading from Isaiah 61.


Flickering shadows
In the mind
The dead are present
Even when we forget them
Even in the words we fail to speak
But when concerned observers
Publish words of anger or distress
Attempting to be the voice
Of those who have lost the most
We’re left with little more
Than dust on our lips...'

These are the closing words in the last stanza of Fr. Alan Everett’s poem ’14 June 2017’ about the fire at the Grenfall Tower. Words that are still pertinent following the service of remembrance for the 71 people who died in the tragic fire on 14 June. Emotions still run high as some locals want the tower torn down whilst others want it to stand as a permanent reminder - an indictment of unheeded warnings and management failings. 

In some senses Fr Alan’s poem could be on the lips of the exiled residents of Jerusalem. After the Babylonian sacking of the city in 587 BCE, when the city and temple were laid to waste and the residents were marched off into an uncertain future in Babylon. The mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees. Their hopes and dreams remained crushed and the renewed infrastructure and architecture were memorials to failed leadership and lack of vision.

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…’ Desmond Tutu I think it was once said that the gospel, good news from God, to a hungry person is bread. Hope in that sense is incredibly practical and at it’s best utterly transformative and rooted in the real life situation that someone finds themselves in. If you type ‘stories of hope’ into Google you end up with tale after tale of people finding some light in the midst of the darkness of extreme poverty; of cancer; of natural disasters; of mental breakdown; of bipolar disorder; of drug addiction; of MS and so on. Hope meets people where they are and lifts the burden they carry, even for a time. This was the task given to the prophet in our first reading. God has tasked them to offer his alternative vision to a broken people. And it’s stirring stuff. And as we hear these words this morning our minds are transported to Jesus’ visit to the Temple where he stands to read the reading appointed for the day, which are these words, and as he finished reading and sat down, he says that this transformative vision of God has been fulfilled in Him that day. Isaiah spoke these words to a nation in devastation, but Jesus speaks them to his people under Roman rule and indeed to anyone and always to those who lives have been razed to the ground. For whom hope is just a pipe dream.

I wonder what God’s vision through Isaiah but fulfilled in Jesus might look like to 21st century Britain? To provide Christmas lunch for those who can’t afford it due to benefit cuts? Offering the hand of friendship to the lonely isolated neighbour who’s family either live a long way away or who have washed their hands of their mother? To push the trolley around Meresworth and support the residents and their families with a  cheery word. The thing is, the prophet only does all that he or she does because God’s spirit is on them and they have been anointed and commissioned for this task. As have we.

At our baptism we were gifted the Spirit of God and either then or at our Conformation we may have been anointed with oil to symbolise being set apart for the task which God gives us all. This is the task of the church afresh in each generation.

Isaiah’s words weren’t just about rebuilding the Temple.  They were about rebuilding a whole city; the prophet’s words weren’t just for the faithful remnant of Israel, as strangers and foreigners were welcomed to work and live within the community. God’s vision has much wider scope. As Israel accepted and built this vision into a reality, so the nations would look at them and see the hand of God at work. But it starts with kindness to the bereaved and broken as a sign that God is coming to rescue and to free.

And it begins with us. This wild, unbridled hope begins with us. It begins with us accepting that this is God’s agenda; it begins with us receiving this as God’s agenda in us; it begins with us living this as God’s agenda in our communities as an evangelistic task. In a society that knows less and less of the story of faith and is open less and less to the institution - people are still inspired and changed by acts of kindness and love. There’s lots of talk in the Church of England about growing our churches and some here too. This in of itself is not a bad thing save that the vision that Isaiah shares isn’t about numbers but about transformed lives. I’m not convinced that if we ran the Alpha course more regularly that the church would grow;  I’m not convinced if we shorted or changed our worship that our churches would grow; but I am completely convinced that when we each open our hearts and our hands and our homes and offer kindness and compassion of the sort of which Isaiah spoke and Jesus ministered it is here that love is found and it is in these pockets of hope where friendships are built and God is encountered.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Charles de Foucauld, Zoe and the Cross

Charles de Foucauld was born into an upper class Strasbourg family in 1858. His parents died when he was quite young leaving him a large fortune, which like the parable of the prodigal son, he spent on rowdy parties, froie gras and champagne. He served for a time in the French Foreign Legion in Afghanistan. Whilst there, he found a growing fascination with Islam but he remained firmly an agnostic, but something was happening.

Returning to France he embarked on a spiritual quest that led to him to stop frequently in Catholic churches to make a simple prayer - God if you exist, let me know it. Finally in 1886, in St Augustine’s church in Paris, he experienced a profound answer to his prayer and was converted. He began to discern a vocation centred on the ordinary life of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. He entered a Trappist monastery and was eventually assigned to Syria where his work was to supervise Muslim manual labourers who worked there. It was here that he discerned a call to serve not lead; he left the monastery and became a gardener for the Poor Clares in Nazareth. He was ordained in 1901 and returned to Afghanistan to live as a hermit - during the day labouring alongside the locals and translating the Gospels into the native dialects and at night lost in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He was murdered by a band of anti-French tribesmen on December 1st in 1916. His life of self-denial remains inspirational to this day.

Self denial like that of Charles de Foucald is as counter-cultural now as it was then - a car overtook me yesterday having driven hard behind me in a queue of traffic for a few miles, just to get one car in front. Or the lady in Wallmart in the USA who pulled a gun in a fight over the last notebook in the school supplies section. Or commuters on a train whose bags need seats but haven’t paid for a ticket for them. Or the able bodied person who parks in a disabled space because they’ll only be a minute… and I’m sure you can think of many other examples too.

Assuming that this passage follows on chronologically from last week’s, Jesus and the disciples around Caesarea Philippi and Jesus is curious as to whether people understand who he is. Amid a variety of responses, Simon Peter proclaims Jesus as Messiah and Jesus affirms Simon as trustworthy friend and on this proclamation of faith the church will be built. From here though, Jesus’ eyes and focus turn to Jerusalem, the place of his trial and passion and so He begins to teach his disciples that this is where all this is heading.

Jesus said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Hurricane Harvey has just devastated parts of Texas leaving 42 people dead and some 43,000 people out of their homes. In the midst of the criticisms of how fast the president and emergency services responded come stories of people opening up their homes to support the needy as some 20% of the homes in Houston do not have flood insurance - a clear indicator that this happens with some regularity - but also a clear indicator that the poorest and most vulnerable have been left poorest and most vulnerable because those who need that insurance couldn't afford it. But this story made the news above the devastating floods in Mumbai that have killed 1200 people and shut a million children out of school. Many here have lost lives and livelihoods. Many are grateful they have been saved.

What is Jesus talking about in terms of losing and saving life? The word translated for life is the word from which we get our word psyche - our individual conscious selves, that which makes us us. The issue is that there are 3 words for life in Greek - Bios (alive as in biologically alive), Psyche, and Zoe (literally ‘with-God-life’ or eternal life.) Jesus is encouraging his hearers to put to one side our priorities in life - manifesting itself as an innate quest to survive at all costs at best, or as selfishness at worst, and instead to seek the life of the kingdom where our own selfishness self-preservation is secondary and God’s ways and purposes have first place in us for the good of all.

All of this happens though in the shadow of the cross, which all too often reveals us as we really are.  The cross showed Peter to be the one on whose rock like faith the church will be built but also to be a stumbling block. The cross showed Jesus to be a political revolutionary but also a spiritual messiah. The cross isn't just empty - a symbol of hope, that all will be well and that Jesus is alive, but it also continues to be a place that judges our motives and drives.

You may wear a cross on a chain round your neck, but we all wear one by virtue of our baptism, is not just to show the world who you are, but to remind you of who the world needs you to be. Before the cross signified salvation, it was the instrument of condemnation. It was a sign for what happens when power is crossed, when we lose our life, and when you instead choose the life of the kingdom living out forgiveness, love and peace, which means the willingness to stand against power that silences and oppresses: the insistence on speaking up for those the world would crucify; the courage to call a thing what it is. It means the resolution to renounce those systems and institutions and leaders and yes all too often ourselves - who choose themselves over others, and all those who choose their own needs over the good of all.

The cross is always a crossroads in us everyday as we always have the choice - psyche or zoe - my way of God’s? If we chose our own way, we lose zoe; we chose God’s we find zoe and psyche. Charles de Foucald knew this which is why his prayer is this:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,

for you are my Father. Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

And On This Rock...

As some of you know, I was invited to attend a 10 residential conference at Windsor Castle in July. At one of the sessions we entered the room to find all of the chairs removed and it filled with a number of easels with large bits of blank paper attached to them with pencils and charcoal to hand, and we were invited to spend 2 hours drawing. I can’t draw or paint. I have been told I can’t over many years, most often by me. I can’t translate what my eye actually sees in terms of lines, shade and shape - all too often I try to draw what I am asked. I need to unlearn what I have been told about my ability and relearn to look and to really see what’s there and to represent that. I have bought a sketch pad and some pencils and I am trying to unlearn. Not to draw a thing but to look. To see lines and shapes.

We all come at life with presuppositions like this - previous experiences or statements in the past shape our response to something in the present, sometimes we can name that as something that happened to us at school or something a friend or family member said. Sometimes it’s things we just cant name. It’s the same with people. Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, has spent 30 years befriending members of the KKK. He goes to their rallies; he goes to their homes and eats with them. ‘How can they hate me if they don't know me?’, he asks.

People have been wanting to know more of Jesus’ teaching by the time we encounter him in this morning’s Gospel reading. By asking his disciples who the Son of Man is, He trying to gauge how much of what he teaches is hitting home, but also wether people have grasped who he is and by who’s authority he is ministering. By the disciples naming John and Elijah and Jeremiah - people are identifying Jesus with what they have known themselves or have heard in the stories of the faith of their ancestors from the past. They need to unlearn what they think they know about Jesus if they are to truly grasp who he is and what God has called him to.

Here’s the news folks - God was already at work in Peter. In foot in mouth, getting it wrong, Messiah denying Peter. God was at work in Him. So when Peter answers Jesus’ “Who do you say that I am?” question with “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God” this rose out of Peter’s experience of God at work in Jesus yes but also of God at work in Peter, enabling him to see Jesus his friend and teacher in a new way.

But Jesus goes on - I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it… What Jesus actually says is “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I shall build my ekklesia (assembly; usually translated church) and the gates of Hades shall not overpower her.” The word petra translated as rock is grammatically feminine and it agrees with the Greek word ekklesia, which is also grammatically feminine. Thus, the noun petra does not refer to Peter. Jesus will build his church on one so fickle, so week, who would let him down, who would deny him and yet despite all of this - the gates of Hades would not prevent the good stuff that God is doing in and through him - because Peter has come to know that Jesus is the Messiah. It is this confession on which the church will be gathered and built. On a shared belief; on a shared experience on the life changing news that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God - a God who enters our present experience; a God who is relevant to our here and now and not focussed on dead prophets or the things and ways of the past.

Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah cashed up. What he confessed with his mouth and heart impacted the life he lived. What this meant was that Jesus’ way and the values of the Kingdom were Peter’s first priority - his own concerns and needs were secondary. What we are presented with in this morning’s Gospel isn’t some early church creedal statement; this isn't a piece of doctrine inserted into Peter’s mouth - Peter seems to be a person who speaks first and suffers any consequences later. He couldn't help himself in saying what he said that day. It was a direct response to Jesus’ question and a response to being in his presence. 

What we confess of Jesus here in Church in our creeds and hymns and prayers, impacts what we live - our whole lives. Yes our response to Jesus is more formalised in our liturgy but at it’s heart is the same instant and vital response - yes Lord you are the Messiah; yes Lord have your way; yes Lord your will be done on earth and in my life as it is in heaven. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ Messiahship was due to God working in and transforming him. As we confess Jesus, God is still working in us, transforming us. And we’ll know we are being transformed by God ourselves by the way we act and react and I think that’s what Jesus means about binding and loosing and maybe why he told His disciples to tell no one about Him.

When we bind or restrict justice to the dominant and powerful and loose or release or enact injustice to the most vulnerable among us, heaven knows God sees and His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. When we bind ourselves to wanting things our own way, and do not release or loose ourselves into new possibilities for the good of us all, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. If we fail to act because we are more concerned about what others will think of us rather that what others need, heaven knows, God sees, His heart breaks and people around us fail to see Jesus in us. Whatever we do and say in Jesus’ name on earth has an impact in the heavenly realm - God sees it - and others will either see or not see Jesus in us as a result.

Why does Jesus command the disciples to say nothing about him being the Messiah? How will they build the church or withstand oppressive powers if they tell no one? Because the confession of Jesus as Messiah isn't theological algebra but evidence of a heart and life being transformed by God. Nothing needs to be said of Jesus and the kingdom when we are actively looking to forgive and be forgiven; when we are working for justice especially for the marginalised and the poor; when we are loving our neighbours and even our enemies in demonstrable ways. It is on rocks such as these that Jesus has and continues to build his church.

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


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 ( 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.