Sunday, November 30, 2014

T minus 730

Time like an ever rolling stream...

The thing about birthdays is that they are a mark of success. People who live the longest lives collect the most. In that respect, I don't mind having accumulated another.

Cas Timmis, apologies for the lack of a card, but Happy Birthday. Ryan Giggs, we continue in the same decade together.  CS Lewis, it's good to know you share your day with the United assistant manager, isn't it?

It was a good weekend. A supper with friends, the Merton Advent Carols (at which I had the enormous pleasure of reading a lesson), time with Dad & Lorna, sunshine & mist as Oxfordshire does best at this time of year, and far too much food.

It has been a good year. Some are better than others; this was definitely a good one. I am very, very thankful for home and calling and people around, and family and Harry and chance to see friends near and far. It has been a good year.

I am always grateful for the lack of a crystal ball. Tomorrow may be wonderful or terrible, or just a bit dull, but today is lovely.

And I thank God for that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

turn, turn, turn

I had one of those moments yesterday that made me stop in my tracks. It was wonderful.

It was in our afternoon Bible Study Group. We are slowly working our way through Romans. At times it is inspiring, at times hard work. We are learning lots together, and (on the whole I think) enjoying the experience. I always love taking a Romans class; it's one of my favourite study options. We have just got to the end of chapter six, having started the course at the beginning of September.

But yesterday I was asked a question and I didn't know the answer.

I mean, of course, right? It happens all the time. Well - actually, I've been teaching this stuff in parishes to parish groups for twenty years, and actually, no, it's pretty unusual. In fact, I can't remember the last time I was asked a question like this.

That is, there are technical questions (who was King after Hezekiah) that I might stumble on for a moment, or text questions (where is the verse that says...) that need a quick check before I can give the definitive.

But this was a theological question. A substantive theological question. A simple theological question. An obvious theological question.

And I had no answer.

I loved it!

I mean, to have church members that can ask the question because they see the issue and then can put it into simple terms - brilliant. One member of the group saw a hole in what was being said and pointed it out.

Now - I think it's more a hole in a theological approach to the text than in the text itself, but it's still a great question, and it's amazing that this came, because I'd have to say that it took me by surprise. I've simply never identified it as a gap in Romans before. But the more I look at it - the more of a gap it is. And I've done some reading since yesterday, and the more reading I do, the more of a gap it seems to me to be.

Oh - you want to know the question. Right. Really simple. It was:

"Where's repentance in all of this?"

Every good evangelical knows that repentance comes before faith, but St Paul seems to have forgotten. Righteousness, being justified, the grace we now have - it's all gift, gift, gift. All I could do was acknowledge that we place a high import on repentance but in Romans all I could think of was a repentance reference in chapter 2, but it's in a section where Paul is still dealing with the problem of sin and how it affects everyone, Jew & Gentile. It's not part of the solution. It's not about how we access that solution, how we become 'in Christ', how we start to have faith, how we turn from being slaves to sin in order to be slaves to righteousness. It's not anywhere near the story of when we were in Adam but now we are in Christ, or how we were led by our sinful nature but now we are led by the Spirit. And for all those changes, Paul never talks of the change - just of the difference, and of the gift that moves us from one place to the other, and then of the imperative to live lives that reflect we have moved.

There's a lot of implied change of heart in Romans 11, when the Old Testament people of God are re-gratfed into the New Testament people of God. But the theological process of repentance isn't really what is being described, for the onus is not on what the people do but on God grafting them in again. His action. His gift. Not their choice or response.

So I had to give the best answer I could:

"I don't know."

It's been a while since a parish study group has stopped me in my tracks and asked me a really basic question that I have failed to see and for which I have no answer. It was a terrific experience. How wonderful to have people that hear what is being said and apply the lessons and ask the questions.

I may just be slow here - that's a given - but I am grateful to have this group in my home on a Monday afternoon making me work harder in my thinking, and not letting me do this the easy way!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

thank you for the music

Once upon a time...

This is a terrific photo. Taken a very long time ago, on a wonderful day when our band was at its best. We had a great time together and forged friendships that have lasted through the years. We made some great music. And some pretty ropey stuff too... And we worshipped with heart and soul.

Happy days!

This last weekend some of us got to do it all over again.

Ruth stood in for Carolyn, Richard B for Martin - M&C live in the US now, which is a bit far for a one-off gig. Both Ruth & Richard have played with us before: Ruth sang with us at M&C's wedding, and in the backing vocals on our last recording; Richard played bass on the last recording.

And Chas got to play rhythm guitar in Neil's place, so Richard KH stepped in and completed the line-up.

The Groove Heroes, back again. The Up from the Grave Heroes, disconcertingly sounding better than ever.

I guess we have all been playing and singing for the last twenty years, so we ought to know what we are doing by now... And it's nice to know that Andy still churns out those creative ideas. (The ratio holds: one in a hundred is pure gold.) So (thanks to Andy) we ended up doing We are Marching in the Light of God (Siya Hamba) in the style of Pharrell's Happy. And it was terrific.

Throw in some Rend Collective, and all sorts of other bits and pieces - we had a blast.

The event was the Oxford Diocese 'Grand Day Out', a huge farewell to Bishop John with a crowd of 2,500 and as well as the band we had a choir, an organist (Mr Paul Herrington, continuing the re-union theme) and a brass band. Occasionally all together.

There are moments in life when you just get your breath taken away by the gift. I have felt that many things have been taken away, many dreams, many expectations over the years. And suddenly in the shadow of Merton College I was leading worship with this group of friends, including the choir and Paul H and brass band producing music that was rich and varied and with a host of bishops beside me, for a diocesan gathering at an important moment on a day when I would properly expect to be on the back row somewhere out of sight, out of mind - and I got to play and sing to Jesus and to invite everyone to hold my hand as I held his and join in the joy.

You think you've let go of these things. Then comes the gift. Gift-wrapped on Merton field.

At the end of the day, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and a serious, bespectacled, older chap looked at me and said: "As a bishop from Sweden, I want to say to you - Thank You For The Music".

It really doesn't get much better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

heroes and villains

Theologian, broadcaster, songwriter, worship leader - not to mention Wycliffe Hall alumna - Vicky Beeching came out as gay this week.

It's been a bit of a thing.

She has quite a high media profile. Here's a picture of her on Sky News. The article that announced her sexuality was in the Independent. There are rumours she'll be a Songs of Praise presenter. She was on Channel 4 News.  She was on Stephen Nolan's show on BBC5 Live.

Most Christians who come out don't get that kind of coverage.

It's been an interesting experience, watching & listening. She talks of the fracture between who she was inside, and who she needed to be outside in order to have the life & ministry - and indeed simply the faith she wanted to have in the part of the church where she belongs. And yet that fracture made her very ill, and the time came where she had to do something to put it right. She chose health.

I think that this is something which huge parts of the church still don't quite get. When you are a (vast) majority, you don't get the pressure you put on a minority. You don't get how it feels to be in that minority and to want with all your heart to conform - but for it to be impossible. And when the majority tells you it's a matter of choice, or prayer, or maturity in Christ - and you find it's simply not possible, you do all that's within your gift to live a life that looks like the one you are supposed to be having.

This is the road to disaster.

Well done, Vicky for the honesty to stop the lie.

I posted on my facebook wall about this. And I was astounded by the response. It came in two ways. There were those who opposed my support of Vicky; and one in particular was strong in their condemnation of Vicky's stance and in their propounding of what, for them, are traditional Christian values. They unfortunately chose to be a little ungenerous in their tone, and I removed a couple of their posts as a result. I didn't remove them because I disagreed with their viewpoint but because of the aggressive way it was delivered. I welcome debate; spoken kindly.

There were others who spoke of their own journeys, where the unkindness of Christians had been so hurtful that church had become hard.

Let me say this, and say it clearly:

I know what you mean. I've been there. I've felt it. I've felt every cut of every thoughtless word. In a church where I was serving & giving myself beyond myself, I stood with two people one day in conversation, and one of them said: "At least we'll never have a gay vicar, eh?"

This was not a bad person who spoke these words. This was a good person. A person I cared for very much. A person I depended upon. A person I regard as a godly, caring, prayerful person.

What do you do in the light of that?

Well, I went through my own illness eventually. But I came through the other side because Jesus is wonderful, and he loves us all very much. Me included. And there came a point when I realised that having a life where I didn't need all the fingers on one hand to count the people who knew about me was never going to work; so I started to tell friends and family, and that was scary, but good. I came through the other side because people in the church were terrifically caring and believed in me more than I did. It's important to say that. Sometimes the story sounds a bit lop-sided - I think Vicky will look back on some of these interviews and agree she didn't say everything she should have.

The thing is - and despite her media blitz, Vicky Beeching has yet to discover this - I'm afraid there is no end to coming out. It goes on and on and on. You get 'coming out fatigue'. I'm not terribly demonstrative as a person; so it's not easy for me to stop someone in mid-flow and say - "Oh you have quite the wrong impression, I'm as bent as a three pound coin." My usual phrase, if I get there at all, is "Sorry. Not exactly the straightest arrow in the quiver".

And it is upsetting beyond words when you do that and find that someone who ten minutes ago would have said you had a wonderful and Spirit-filled ministry is now calling you names and accusing you of selling people down the river to hell; but I have learned that when grace and kindness have left the room the only thing to do is to bring them back in. And it is wonderful when you start to speak with trepidation and find more affirmation in those minutes than you'd ever imagined possible.

I hear dear friends say they would leave the church over "this issue", and I tell them that I am bemused as to why they would leave the church over me. Over my ministry. Over my commitment to the Scriptures and to worshipping Jesus and to bringing people to faith in him. We belong together. I am, politically, a Unionist. I believe in bringing all sorts of unlikely folk into a shared space and asking for grace to find the best in our shared lives. Isn't that New Testament church? I want to belong to the same church as the person who thanks God they'll never have a gay vicar, because (thoughtlessness put aside) I like this person enormously and I am less without them. And they are less without the gay vicar, it turns out. (As, subsequently, they have themselves pointed out.)

We are not heroes and villains, we are children of God, brothers and sisters in his family. We will disagree, it's what happens in families. And yet we are family. So we should find a way to love, and to speak, and to speak when speaking is hard, and to avoid name-calling and to think about each other and of finding ways of expressing value and -

of being kindly Christian. It has to be possible. It has to make a better, more Biblical way of life. For us all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

three things

What to do in the face of the unbearable?

Every day, Canon Andrew White's facebook page brings fresh horrors. At last, the newspapers are catching up to the shock of what is happening in Iraq, and the US are there in military force. Britain is offering humanitarian aid.

What can we do?

Three things:

1. Pray.
It's always the first. When we sink beneath the waves of life, we find Jesus' arm lifting us up. We look to Jesus. We call to him. He is our first, our last, our middle, our beginning, our end, our journey. If we don't pray, we are practising atheists.

What do we pray for?
For those who have nothing. For those who are dying on mountainsides. For those who have been turfed out of house and home. For hope in despair. For material relief. For those who have to help those who have not.
For change.
For mercy.
For those with military power, that it gets used wisely and not ultimately to everyone's detriment.
For those who are right now making the world a terrible place: they are people too. We pray for them.
We pray for ourselves - that we might not be impotent, and that we might somehow help.
And we pray that we might forgive & be forgiven, and that in our lives, where there are poor and forgotten people, we would reach out and remember and do something - or our tears over those far away are unconvincing.

2. Speak.
In these last weeks, many folk have been speaking on the internet and in private to people who are more powerful than you and I, and though it has taken time - now things are happening.
We carry on.
In whatever pulpit you have, speak.
Speak so that people hear the voice of those who are being silenced.
Write to your MP (or equivalent).
Participate in online conversations.
Talk about these issues - and be informed. Read newspapers, follow Andrew White's page & blog, as unbearable as it it. Tell others.

3. Be Generous.
This is practical love.
The UK government has pledged £8M of aid - that sounds a lot, but when you see the numbers of displaced people already, and the money it takes to get the aid there, this will go quickly.
Support our fellow Christians who have had their lives destroyed.
Read the Barnabas Fund page & give; they are constantly helping persecuted Christians all over the world. Iraq is their front page right now. Or if you prefer, give through the Christian Aid appeal, or the Red Cross.

We get faced with unbearable news stories. But we aren't living in the middle of these stories. So we aren't actually feeling the waves crashing over us: others are. Let's pray in every way we can, speak of their plight to those with the power to do something, and give to those who are going out there and making their lives that but better.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

no pun in ten did

  1. She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still
  2. Sign on the lawn at drug rehab centre: Keep off the grass
  3. A midget fortune-teller escaped from prison. Police are looking for a small medium at large.
  4. A soldier who survived mustard gas & pepper spray is a seasoned veteran
  5. In democracy, it’s your vote that counts; in feudalism, it’s your count that votes
  6. When cannibals eat a missionary, do they get a taste of religion?
  7. A vulture boards a 747 holding 2 dead racoons. “Sorry sir,” says the stewardess, “Only one carrion per passenger”
  8. A dog that gave birth to puppies at the roadside was cited for littering
  9. A hole has been found in a nudist camp wall. Police are looking into it.
  10. A man sent a list of amusing wordplays to all his friends in the hope that at least one would make them smile. No pun in ten did. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

success rate

Earlier this week I was having one of those competitive conversations clergy have with each other when I was asked:

"Which are you better at then - weddings or funerals?"

I replied straightaway:
"My success rate for funerals is far higher."

The other cleric looked bemused and said:
"I'm sorry, what?"

"Well," I explained, "I have to confess that not every person I have ever married has remained married. But EVERY person I have buried..."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

where is the west?

A fourth century monastery in northern Iraq, home to a small community of monks, has become the latest Christian outpost to receive the anger of the forces of ISIS.

These few monks, begging to save some of the monastery's relics from its long and varied history, were told to leave in the clothes they wore and allowed to take nothing else with them according to witnesses.

The monastery of Mar Behnam is a few miles from Mosul, which last week received the ISIS ultimatum for its Christian residents to flee, pay tribute, or die by sundown Saturday. It is reported that this Sunday was the first since Christians first resided in the town, near the start of the Christian story, that there was no Christian congregation in Mosul. Perhaps this is not true yet, perhaps a family was left which dared to pray together. Many times has the passing of Christianity been proclaimed; and yet there is resurrection.

The UN is accusing IS (as ISIS is now being called) of war crimes. Nearly 6,000 Iraqis have been slaughtered by them this year.

And yet - where is the West?

Where is our outrage?

If a Mosque were destroyed, if a Hindu Temple were desecrated, if the holy place of another religion that bore hundreds of years of culture and faith and human and spiritual value, we would look at it in horror and cry for justice.

Entire Christian communities are being destroyed, and their churches, many of them far older than anything we have here in our own country, are being ransacked and desecrated, and where is the West?

I ask not for bullets and bombs and reprisals but for justice and peace and hope and homes and strength to stand up for those who are treated as less than human by bullies who shout faith when they abuse that cry.

We who bear the name of Christian stand shoulder to shoulder with those who today have no home, no belongings, no past, no future. We are family. We will cry with you and cry out for you. We will make our voices heard so that your voices may be heard.

Where is the West?

We are here; we are with you; you are not alone.

Monday, July 21, 2014

a walk in the park

Tom Benyon is at it again.

Every year he puts himself through misery for the sake of his charity ZANE - Zimbabwe, A National Emergency. He walks the length, breadth, depth and whatever other dimension of the country he can think up in order to raise funds for the numberless people he helps through his astonishing work.

This year, it's Ambleside to Oxford. In case you don't know Tom, I should add that he's of an age where most men are well retired and only creep out for the occasional foray onto the golf course. But increasingly well into his eighth decade, he insists on trekking with his wife Jane and their dog for God and for their fellow human beings who need their help.

Today their walk brought them onto my patch. The least I could do was to eat lunch with them, and then walk them through the wild fields of North Aston Parish and the gentler roads of Steeple Aston.

Eventually they arrived at the Deddington Arms (just north of my patch, but still a decent pub), where Richard, their faithful support driver was leafing through the sports pages of the Daily Telegraph and recounting the criminal lack of good pubs open at lunch times "in the north". Jane & Tom were accompanied today by a goodly legion of family members, as this is pretty close to their own home in Bladon. So there were two daughters (Millie and Clare - herself an Anglican cleric and well-known in these pages) and three grandsons (Clare's boys), which perhaps excused the late-running of the morning session.

Many Moules later, we were ready for the off.

Tom has a curious gait. He waddles with the grace of a man who expects to find a horse between his legs. It is a triumph of his determination to serve his Charity that he finishes these walks - by nature I am not convinced he is built for long daily strolls up hill and down dale. He uses two sticks as he walks, and their constant 'clack-clacking' on any footpath or road surface is fair warning of his approach. He retains stealth mode only when crossing fields and in virgin woodland. (Which is a fair part of the daily fare, if what I encountered is anything to go by).

Also - though Jane has a GPS device hanging from her neck, this is only any good if the paths on the maps exist. Which they didn't as we left Deddington. Still, fields are fields, and I knew where North Aston was. Even a herd of marauding cows couldn't put us off. Tom's sticks were very useful there. One of the grandsons took to hiding in a tree for a moment, but all was well. Even the sheep parted to let us through.

Eventually - North Aston. One of the residents of this most blessed of England's villages once said to me, "I don't understand why anyone who lives in North Aston would ever want to visit Italy". Given the culture, the art, the food, the weather, the architecture, the history and the scenery available on a day like today, it is almost possible to agree. If only there were a Vivoli's in North Aston!

The good people of the village greeted us with refreshments, chairs, embraces, and donations to ZANE. It was very moving - all the more so as we swapped grandchildren; some left, others joined, and both Clare & Millie departed for home.

We walked on through the parkland belonging to North Aston Hall, and down the lane to Middle Aston, before reaching Steeple Aston, where Harry the Springer joined the merry band.

I'm not sure how many clergy have walked with Tom on this journey. He & I talked at great depth about perceptions of right and wrong, the mistake of avoiding responsibility for sin and an understanding of freedom as choosing obedience. With a little more time, I think we would have had a five-point plan for Israel and Hamas, but alas, Tom needed a little time to get his thoughts in order for the Woodstock Rotarians.

It was a privilege to escort these remarkable people who burn with passion for others so maltreated by fortune and their fellows that they have nothing and can do nothing in a country so far away. It was a privilege to step on the edge of their journey as it brought them into the heart of my own. It was a joy to see my own patch from their perspective and to see the love and generosity of people here serving our guests. I was proud to be Rector of such kind people.

Tom keeps a blog through his walks. This journey finishes for him and Jane tomorrow, but the blog is always there, as is so much more. Do drop by. They've done hundreds of miles over these last three weeks, and thousands in total; it's not just a walk in the park - it's a life of commitment to changing lives, and I commend ZANE to you.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

ever rolling stream

Is it the process of ageing that makes us stop and appreciate each passing moment, that allows us the ability to press the pause button of life and remain within the moment in order to enjoy, to cherish, to be grateful and express the gratitude for what is happening here and now?

In youth, time flies. We spend it like the money we don't have. We will always be able to pay back later.

And then...

The currency gains in value. I intend to spend a lot more of it yet - though the years tell me I may already have spent more than remains; and the experience of the years tells me to value the currency, because who knows what lies ahead?

So we gathered to celebrate Mum's 80th Birthday. I drove up from Oxfordshire, Gill & Ben flew in from Florida. We had a party; it was a blast. Lots of friends and family and laughter and Mum loving every minute. I took her to a concert in Manchester - Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Excellent. The encore, just Wynton Marsalis & the rhythm section extemporising for ten minutes, will remain in my heart for ever as one of the musical highlights of my life. Mum adored it. She said she felt drunk on the music - which is perfect; as it should be. We were on the second row, and time stood still. I say it was ten minutes - I actually have no idea how long it was. It was an eternity, it was a second, it was glorious.

Gill and Ben then came and stayed with me at my place in the shire. We travelled on what was actually the 20th anniversary of my ordination. How grateful could I be? To be bringing Gill & Ben home, to be welcoming them here, to share a few precious days together.

We live a long way apart; we live very close. Life has lots in store for us yet, and yet we begin to make plans for what the future may hold.

Another musical highlight: years ago I took Gill to see Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden.  This year, on a whim whilst in Manchester with Mum, I rang the box office at the Royal Opera to see what was playing whilst Gill was with me. I took Gill & Ben to see Tosca - Placido Domingo conducting, Bryn Terfel as Scarpia, and the glorious Sondra Radvanovsky as Tosca. I've seen this opera a hundred times; I've never seen it done better. We had a terrific time, made all the better by tea beforehand with cousin Louise & Selihah at Delaunay's.

The weekend came around, and with it a service to mark that 20th anniversary.

At first, I'd wondered whether I would publicly mark this moment. And then I had to. I had to because I am simply so grateful to be here. I wanted to take the moment, to live in it, to say thank you to God and stop time and stand still and be thankful. I am here because of his faithfulness. I am here because of the friends and family who carried me through dark days. I am here because of everything, despite everything, and with great, great joy.

I couldn't say it quietly in a corner.

It was a terrific day - and I was thrilled to see friends from years gone by and friends from places far and wide in church. Welsh connections, Wycliffe people, St Aldate's friends, both couples for whom I have been best man, and in Joe Martin a US friend and the purveyor of the best excuse for being late I ever heard anywhere. Clare Hayns preached beautifully.

A good group stayed for lunch on the Rectory lawn, and it seems that for this week Champagne has replaced Coke Zero as my standard beverage.

In the service we sang an anthem, a piece I wrote for Geoffrey & Jeanette Cotterill's wedding in June 1989. We sang it again in the evening at a service where they gathered former St Aldate's music group members to lead worship in their current church. The photo could be from 1989 or so, with a little ageing added to it. Very bizarre.

And that's the gift. For in the pausing to remember, to enjoy, to be grateful, to thank God and to love people, the ever rolling stream goes back and forward and cuts in and out and stops in its tracks as we take time to enjoy time and refuse to be its prisoners. It is another of the Lord's marvellous gifts. And maybe it is in possessing and having been possessed by so much more of this gift, that the open thankfulness for past and future are what make this moment also feel like such a present.