Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Time travelling. The annual pass.

I've been having fun receiving the annual natal congrats today.

FaceBook has decided that a year after my 50th, I'm celebrating my 40th. Well, if it's on the internet, it must be true.

Though @realDonaldTrump hasn't posted about is, so, it may not be completely true. Or it may be very true. Depending on where you get your fake from these days.

Last time I was 40, I had an evening do in the Gelliwastad Club in Pontypridd, with the quartet playing, and lots of friends in black tie. This time was a much quieter day.

Harry & I had a good walk (see picture) in the November sun - and wind, which was quite cold; I baked; I went to see a Janacek opera.

Janacek. There's a guy who knew a good time: "From the House of the Dead". An opera set in a prison camp. I tell you, I know how to celebrate being 40 again. Well, WNO are in Oxford for the week, so I'm going to the full set - Tchaikovsky, Janacek, Strauss. One of these is genuinely a bundle of laughs.

Speaking of laughs, if I let myself, I could describe the whole experience of being 50 as interesting. In the Chinese proverb "interesting times" way, rather than in the "want to have more time being 50 so I can explore it and understand even more of it" way. More Janacek than Strauss.

And then I'd have to add - as Stephen Sondheim so memorably said in a song I've enjoyed again this year in its West End revival - "Lord knows at least I was there, and I'm still here..."

Yet that doesn't quite hit the mark. I've had some fragile times this year. But I was also given the gift of a piano, and I've been playing it every day, sitting down and finding songs old and new to sing and enjoy. All sorts of songs, but at the start of each day - worship songs. It has been a wonderful gift to have this piano. It has kept me spiritually close to God, as such a gift should.

And in my car as I've driven around, all sorts of music has healed my soul. Bach, of course. And Beethoven. And Basie. And Shostakovich - who knew? And most recently some old recordings of worship songs that Dan & Kirsty & I did together before they left Pontypridd. Just the three of us playing through songs and hymns. Simple, beautiful.

I guess I'm saying - it's been a year. There have been moments of fragility. There have been touches of God.

On my second visit to Florida this year I got an art piece which simply says "Rise'. Because every year, often every day gives the choice - is the cup half full or half empty? Which way are you going to see life? Which way are you going to let life see you? Sometimes it really does feel like Back to the Future, facing all the same old same olds all over again, and if the empty won before - how do we do this again?

Because we rise. Because we have a God who rose for us and gives us the same power. Because it doesn't matter what age, what day, what mood we find ourselves in. This may just feel like a crucifixion day: but there's a rising coming. And I choose - now, today, always - to fix my eyes on the rising. To fix my eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross.

If it's good enough for Jesus...

As a Christian, I'm supposed to be able to do a little spiritual time travelling on a regular basis - and that's no Fake News. Because we're all supposed to need to look to Easter today in order to reach tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 08, 2017

giving thanks in all things

This last weekend I preached in church on the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

The Gospel reading was the Matthew 14 version of this story. It's a great story, and slightly unusual in that it's one of the few that comes in all four Gospels.

And as I preached, one of my very favourite things happened:
I preached to myself.

I suddenly realised that what I was saying, I was saying to me. The words coming out of my mouth spoke to me.

Now, honestly, it'd be great if every time I preached the power of the word challenged my heart and changed me. But - honestly - this isn't always true. I do try to apply what I say to myself. I do try to think how what I am teaching will help me. But it doesn't always hit me between the eyes and go - Wow! This is God's word to you today!

But this week this happened.

I was carefully working through the text, and explaining how Jesus' disciples weren't quite as filled with endless stores of compassion as Jesus. First, they complain; and second they top the complaint with a problem which they reckon will sort out the issue to their liking.

Jesus is busy healing, having compassion on the crowd, when the disciples have had enough. They want a break. So they suggest it's time to stop. This is the complaint. "Can't we go home now?" "Haven't we done enough already?" Or, in the words of the text: "Send them away to buy their own food. It's late."

Jesus smiles. Concerned about them being hungry? I'm delighted you're learning, and still showing concern. Why don't you feed them?

So the disciples add the deciding problem to the complaint in order to finish the matter off:
"But we have here only five bits of bread and two scraps of fish. Not enough for so many people. End of."

And Jesus lifts his face to God, and says - "Good point. Send 'em home"

No - Jesus does something glorious.

Something so counter-intuitive it changes the world.

Something unthinkably, ridiculously and perfectly Godly.

He picks up the problem. The bread, the fish. The not enough food. And he thanks God for it.
He thanks God for the problem.

Then he breaks the bread. Gives it to the complaining disciples. And the complaining disciples find themselves feeding the massive crowd.

***

I have a confession to make: as a rector, there are times when people complain to me. I know, this may come as a surprise. And, sometimes, to top off the complaint, people will add a problem which really does finish things off.

Or it's meant to.

Know what I mean?

"And on top of that, he voted Brexit."
"And you'll remember she let us down last year as well."
"Well, we've never done it this way before."

But Jesus takes the very thing that is presented as the deciding problem and gives thanks for it. And the giving thanks leads to the problem being broken. And to the disciples stopping complaining and the crowd being fed.

When was the last time you gave thanks for a problem, a difficulty, something that you didn't like?

I can tell you when it happened to me. Sunday morning. As I preached.

***

I've got a meeting this week. With some people I'm finding really hard at the moment. It's their fault things are tricky, obviously. Clearly I'm beyond reproach, in this as in all things.

But I have been dreading this meeting.

Yet as I spoke about this moment, this thanksgiving, this transformational thing that Jesus does, this grabbing the problem that tops the complaint and thanking God for it -
I suddenly realised I had to stop my internal monologue of complaint and lift up my upcoming meeting, and all the people involved, the issues around it, the whole darn thing and thank God for every part of it.

***

We've not got there yet.

The week is young.

I have no idea how this will play out.

But what I do know is that I have been changed by an act of thanksgiving. I am in a different place. I am no longer dreading something ahead. It may well not work out as I'd like! I am however thanking God for his love, his kindness, his provision and his Lordship. However this time goes, he will still be Lord. He will still love everyone involved. He will still kindly bring good and provide a way through. I don't have to fight this battle - nor, I suspect, many of the battles I attempt - right now I just have to lift up the thing to God and be grateful.

And perhaps the thankfulness rather than the struggle will mean I am able to find the compassion and care that he is already working out for more people than I can yet begin to number.

So yes, God used the preacher in church this Sunday to say something that really hit me. And the preacher was me. We really do live in an age of miracles.  

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

supremely and ardently solicitous

As I take a holiday, it's good to catch up on a little light reading.

Taking in some back copies of the Harbinger (the journal of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion in the 1850s), as you do, I came across a piece eulogising a family member. Betty Smith was one of the daughters of my five-times great grandfather, John Green. He had 15 children.

I don't know who wrote this piece, but it's quite lovely to read - first, because although my family of that period were well-known both for being ardent church-goers and entrepreneurs (opening both coal mines and railways but having the decency always to list themselves simply as "farmers" on the census), it's another thing altogether actually to find someone from my family in a period journal as this. And second - the language is gloriously, languidly Victorian.

Her father died young, and her mother gave her "a strictly moral and religious training, followed by the best results". "For personal holiness she was supremely and ardently solicitous" (and who wouldn't want to be described in such a way?!), "She was a genuine specimen of a Christian", "an eminent pattern of guileless simplicity". I hope the photos I include of the article are sufficient for you to enjoy the whole piece - it's a terrific read.

Well. My family may not be mine owners any more; the money came and went with the coal. But it's rather humbling to find a record of a family member born almost two hundred years ago who "was strong in the faith and hope of 'the glorious gospel of the blessed God'". Some things are indeed eternal. I can only hope I too might leave such a story behind.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

songs of hope

So the General Synod refused to take note of the House of Bishops Report.

But this is just a line in a long song of hope. This report is now consigned to the filing cabinet of ecclesiastical history; it does not enter the sad canon of such reports that line up to make gay people the problem, or add to the litany of texts that can be used to keep gay people in our second-class place.

However, we have many more choruses to sing before we reach a final shout of joy. And I mean, a final shout of joy for the whole Church and for all people.

This report couldn't be part of that journey because it excluded some. Please, we don't get to continue the journey by excluding others. Music needs melody and harmony, tune and counterpoint, working together. The Church needs the whole music of God not just one part of it. This report could not be a part of the song of God's people because some of us couldn't sing it. The same is true if some others can't sing either.

Silence is part of music; but not when the mutes are taped to our faces and the score says "play loud!"

Well; what do I want now?

I've been asked that question by two bishops in the last week. One of them asked me this tonight. And I've given them both the same answer.

John Donne's phrase: One equal music.

I want a Church that sees we are all equally human. Equality isn't a fad or a bonus or an added-extra. It's an essential for all people. We don't just give it to those we like or to those we agree with. We give it to all people because they are people. And then we deal with the consequences - which we may not like. We don't search the Scriptures for reasons why we treat others differently, we take it as read that we are the same and apply the same standards to all unless there is overwhelming reason to make an exception. And if there is doubt, we give the benefit of the doubt because the equality of our standing before God brings us to that place. That grace. That glory.

And in the meantime, as the bishops decide what next, I implore them to sack all the lawyers! Inspire us with your vision of God. I can live with not getting what I want (for now - because what I want is to be as much a person as anyone else, and ultimately I don't see how you deny that Scripturally) as long as you inspire the Church of God - which this last report signally failed to do.

Every Bishop I know is an inspiring person. Be who you are. Sing your song. Sing us some hope. These are the songs we have for every person in our land. Sing them for us.

I promise, I'll take note when you do.

A Day Later
And, to keep my word: Archbishop Justin published this comment after the Synod vote. It's about as far from the tone of the original Report as it's possible to be, and has that edge of intention and inspiration that I am asking for. Thank you. Much more of the same, please.

Monday, January 30, 2017

responsibility

As the world goes mad, we all have a responsibility to try to welcome back some sanity.

This happens in different ways, and we will all work out how we should act differently. I think that's fine. But sitting by the sidelines, flicking on the news and switching to an old episode of Friends instead is not an option.

Not anymore.

We need to be friends with people who hold different opinions to us - we need to care for them and see the humanity in those who disagree. We need to listen and talk and try to hold our own prejudices at bay just long enough so that a conversation might be slightly more civilised than a shouting match.

When generosity and kindness have left the room, the only thing to do is to invite them back in. Someone has to. It might as well be us.

This means we lose arguments in order to win people. People always matter more.

And yet...

And yet, there comes a moment when the world goes so mad that amongst all of this (which always, always applies) there come 'line in the sand' moments. Moments which define a time. Moments which we realise when they are happening, and which we will all look back on and for which we will all have to answer - what did you do then?

I hit such a personal moment a few years back when I realised that I had totally accepted for most of my life that I was a second-class human being because I was gay. Seeing that I had genuinely believed and lived this out clearly helped me change - and helped me as I worked through my beliefs as a Christian, and my understanding of the Scriptures. (Which, of course, have no room at all for such an idea. Those of you who don't like St Paul need to sort yourselves out; we have a lot to thank him for.) This drives me passionately, and when I see anyone treating anyone else as if they are somehow 'less', I will always side with the powerless party. Even if I don't like their cause.

Christ is the light that lightens every person; we are all made in God's image; these are foundational and precious truths. People are people.

Western Society is hitting a profound moment right now because powerful people are taking their moment to soft-pedal the equal humanity of all. They do it for all sorts of plausible reasons. Our safety, our economic well-being, our ability to define ourselves; but the message is the same. We are better; they are less; let's assert ourselves!

It's ungodly, it's unChristian, it's unBiblical, and it's inhumane. It's dehumanising.

So - what are we doing in the midst of these days? Flicking from the news to old episodes of 'Friends'? ("Seriously - they were on a break!")

Or talking to folk we disagree with? Listening to opinions we find hard, but they come from real people, so let's understand that and give all people the right to be people. All people. The ones we like and the ones we don't. And let's make sure that in winning this battle for the right for people to be people we don't simply adopt methods we would rail against in others; so no shouting down, no belittling.

Truth must out. Honesty must be our language. Generosity and kindness are our friends; we bring them into every room.

Those of us who are Christians know we follow a Lord who raises folk up, he doesn't grind them into the ground. For any reason. And we are his followers, with the responsibility to work as he does. No other way is acceptable.

For his command is really simple. Jesus says: "Love God. Love your neighbour. Oh, and by the way, love your enemy too. Any questions?"

Saturday, January 28, 2017

gifts

So on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, two gifts:

In England, the House of Bishops published a report declaring that gay people shouldn't have all the same rights as straight people.

In the US, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from entering that country.

Both of these are banner headlines, both of these statements lack nuance, but both of these things are essentially true.

And both of these things are appropriate gifts for Holocaust Memorial Day, which, after all, reminds us that discrimination and prejudice are timeless evils which we must always battle hard to defeat. They are not about other people in the past. They lie in our own souls, and we cannot afford to point the finger at anyone else.

This is today. This is now.

As Steve Turner said -
History repeats
Itself. Has to.
Nobody listens.  

Friday, January 27, 2017

glasses

So the Church of England House of Bishops today published a paper on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships. There's a link to the official press report on it here.

The headline is - it's a fudge.

To precis:
Nothing changes, but we want to make it clear we welcome gay people. Marriage doctrine ain't gonna change - it's very much about one man, one woman - and whilst we thought about recommending (or even just commending) some liturgy for clergy to help mark parishioners celebrating civil partnerships or gay marriages, we thought better of it. More, whilst we want to be really generous about how we consider gay people in ministry and in the church generally, gay sex isn't really on so clergy need to remember that if you aren't in a heterosexual marriage you have to be celibate. Though please, we do understand that loving people matters as a missional church and we'd hate to be heard to say anything that gives any other kind of impression.

Right.

To respond:
I saw a bishop yesterday. I'm seeing another tomorrow. Both of them godly people. Both of them very straight, both of them married with kids, both of them evangelical, both of them kind and wonderful men. But as they are members of the House of Bishops, this is what they get from me.
I'm not like you. My world is a different place. I've tried to be like you, to see the world your way, to live like you, and it made me very, very ill. Now here's the thing - in the Scriptures, salvation & healing are the same root word. And when I accepted who & how God made me to be, not only did I become well physically, I became well spiritually. Salvation came at a deeper level.
And the follow on from this is not that I need you to change, not that I need you to see the world my way or be like me - but I'd love you to allow me to be me. I know, I know - "...but the Scriptures..." Here's the thing. We read them differently, you and I, because our worlds are different. You have these glasses on, this world view you carry round with you that makes you see certain things and suddenly there's a huge red flag waving around. It's not there for me. Anything but. Don't worry, I know I wear glasses too. Actually - my concern is that on this issue, because you are in the massive majority you don't always realise you have your glasses on and you don't get the effect they have. Because I'm constantly a foreigner living in your strange land, I always, always do.
But still I think we might both be able to work together. Equal rights aren't like pie: more for me doesn't mean less for you.
If anything, it works the other way.
Because it's a salvation issue, a healing thing. And the more whole I am, the more whole you are, because we are part of the same body and St Paul writes that if one part of the body is sick the whole body is.

So please: stop being so kind and polite and start being good.
I will fight this fight not because I need you to accept that I am as human as you - I know I am, and every time you publish something that doesn't quite get it, I'll remind you - but there are others who see what you say, who see your smile and your dog collar and your purple and your mitre and who lose something of their value in God. On your watch. On our watch.

Come on, there are words in this report that say we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. Have the courage to push those words to their logical, Biblical, godly conclusion. Either all people are people, or we aren't. And if we are -

And if we are, then those glasses of yours may need adjusting.
Because in Christ we are here to live to the full and to love God and one another. Just like you.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

epiphany

Does anyone know who I am?

I am one of the Magi, one of the Wise Men who visited the infant Jesus. But beyond that, I seem to have been mislaid by history.

They have made up a name for me. Some of you may have heard of Caspar, Melchior & Balthazar. Invented names. In one land I am Rustaham-Gondofarr Suren-Pahlav, which is exotic, but still a fiction. So who am I? 

Am I a king? Maybe, probably not. Were there really three of us at all? No-one knows, it’s just a convention – we brought three gifts, that’s all that’s recorded, & people presume we brought one gift each. But who knows? 

Some think I’m an astrologer. A hippy on a camel, doubtless with strange eastern habits, greeting his new-born guru. And I think they mistake Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh as evidence of extravagance, when we meant them as tokens of worship. It’s not my favourite version of me. 

In the history books, Gentiles always make me a Gentile. “Look! Non-Jewish people get to see baby Jesus!” Hmm. I understand this desire: if I am someone like you, then someone like you was there when Jesus was born. So everyone wants to make me in their own image. I wonder if this is how God feels sometimes? 

Hundreds of years before us, there was a Jewish man who lived in our land, who so pleased our King that he made him chief of the Magi. Some of you may have heard of Daniel. He has a book in the Bible. His writings made some of us look out for certain signs that one day God himself would step into the world to make everything new. And if we should see these signs, we should drop everything and go to worship him.

My friends and I used to debate what Daniel’s words might have meant.  

How could God walk the earth? Not since the Garden of Eden has this happened. What would God do – just appear, or actually be born as a baby? I remember saying I’d need some pretty big sign to persuade me this could happen!

And one day, one of my friends simply lifted a single finger and pointed to the sky.

That night we set out. We journeyed west. There was a small scare as we made a stop-over in Jerusalem and suffered a visit from Herod’s secret police. We told him we only wanted to worship the King of the Jews. He seemed about to get very angry, before smiling thinly and agreeing he would like to join us – would we tell him when we had found this King?

And we did find him. When we got there, he was a small child in a small house in a small village, yet in that room all our questions and questing, all our words and debates, all our lives and indeed our very selves were stilled by a deep underlying silence leading into a sort of helplessness before God. We fell to our knees and worshipped Jesus. 

The whole world was in that room with us. I swear it. And you may not know my name, history may have mislaid me, but I found myself in that place as I worshipped, as I had never found myself before. 

This is who I am. 

This is who I am meant to be. A human being worshipping my Creator in the midst of His creation, and you can take everything else I have from me – my riches, my pride, my name. 


For in giving my worship, my love, my all here in this place, I have now a treasure beyond my wildest dreams.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

year's end

I've been celebrating my 50th all year, mostly in a futile attempt to over-compensate. I've sort of been going round, happily embracing the idea of the new decade, seeing friends, in the hope that if I pretended it was OK it would be.

It's not. It's much more complicated.

But the idea of seeing friends this year was a masterstroke. If I haven't seen you, I apologise; next year in Jerusalem. 2016 has been full of meetings and laughter and memories and joy. I have seen folk I haven't been with for years, and I have loved every second. From Paris and the Dordogne to Nashville and DC, with Cornwall, Florida, Wales, London and all sorts of other places thrown in, it's been great to travel and to see folk - and the party on September when a ton of people came here was amazing.

I don't think I could even begin to choose highlights from the year. It's like choosing my favourite chocolate - normally the answer to that one is "the one right here right now".

Though (to go for a non-friend memory) it might be a very long time before I forget the LSO's Verdi Requiem back in September... It's good to hear music you love done so well it makes you weep. And an afternoon in DC with Karen is always, always a joy. As was Romans in an Hour at Truro Church. And now I've started...

But I'll let the memories fade. The moments were enough. Thank you to everyone who made this year amazing. Thank you. For friendships and conversations and laughter and ideas that fill this life. For making me think harder, for agreeing and disagreeing and for being here and there and always only a thought and a prayer and an email away.

Here's to more next year. I have a big house, a bigger garden, and the world's greatest university on my doorstep. Come visit soon.

Finally, in a year filled with democratic surprises and celebrity demises, I'm just glad to be here. Grateful to be gifted with friends and family who agree and disagree over everything under the sun, grateful to have such variety of thought and opinion all around, grateful to feel the love of God and the challenge of his Spirit in every conversation and encounter. The job requires me to sit with families facing mortality, and please tell anyone who needs to know that should I choke on a turkey bone, I want you to laugh lots (at me, with me, whatever), talk about Jesus, sing nothing but resurrection songs, and finish the burial service with the William Tell overture. Hey, I'm fifty. I could have a Saga holiday; I get to think about these things...

Oh - and as my first post of the year began with this song, just me and a guitar, let's finish with the same song, but with MGQ playing. That was a fun night.
One day soon we all will be together...





 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

congratulations

So here sit Harry & I, wondering what happened.

50.

How could it possibly be?

It's been a lovely day. Sunshine and frost and crisp, early winter's air. Our morning walk was a delight. No deer in sight today, but a gentle haze softening the edges of the fields as they meet the sky, and barely a note of cloud to be found anywhere in the sky.

Glorious.

I don't recall the weather ten years ago. I do recall the party, in the Gelliwastad Club in Pontypridd. MGQ playing, lots of friends and family and parishioners all around.

This year's party was in September. In the garden. Tonight it was just a few friends here at home.

Twenty years ago I had just moved to Aberystwyth. Though I moved in September, the house wasn't ready till the day before my birthday so I threw a housewarming-cum-birthday bash, and my tiny terraced cottage was filled with noise and joy.

Twenty-five years ago I was flying home from Israel. I'd been there with a team from St Aldate's, working with the two Anglican churches in Jerusalem and then having a chance to sightsee in Galilee. During the second half of that trip, I'd had the most amazing experience. Taking an afternoon by myself (because I was fed up and cross) I had ended up genuinely meeting with God by the lakeside in Galilee, and still have the pebble I picked up as I prayed there. The dusk came in fast, and though I found a bus stop back to Tiberias, it was in Hebrew and I had no idea what it said so I started to walk back. A car stopped, and the older gent who offered a lift (I guess he was probably the age I am now) was a University lecturer - a philologist. He spoke six languages. Sadly, English was number six, and so we conversed in a mixture of broken French and English, and I told him that I was training to be a priest.

He said:
If you want God's want, you are (how you say) congratulations.

Twenty-nine years ago this night happened in the University Church in Oxford, as I conducted the OICCU Carol Service on my 21st Birthday. I got my first CD player that day too. Goodness.

The year before, I don't exactly recall what I was doing, but I do recall walking with friends in Oxford at night and being terribly depressed that I was no longer a teenager. The move from 19 to 20 seemed enormous.

That I have friends from those far off days around me this evening, friends who have known me through the years, and messages from around the world pinging on my phone all day, is all the gift anyone could ask for.

The memories are selective; the blessings beyond number.