Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fair Play

Fair play, as they say in Pontypridd, the talk at church today was far better than last week. I still found the backdrop disturbing, and I guess I knew what was coming as far as the order of service was concerned.

Gluttony was the subject. It was still an "advice" sermon, but there was far more Scripture, and even a note of forgiveness. (If I am being picky, there was a stress on confession coming before forgiveness which is an interesting debate but not for now.)

What was excellent about the talk was the line that fasting was the antidote to gluttony. We should recognise the fault within ourselves and then be pro-active in not only seeking forgiveness but in acting to change things. Fasting was seen not as a negative abstention-for-abstention's-sake action, but as a spiritual activity, a taking on prayer and drawing closer to God instead of doing something else. So you can fast from anything that regularly takes to much time or forms too great a part of your life. Chocolate. Coffee. The internet. TV. Solid food (for a day - it's possible). Sports on TV. Video games. Magazines. Shopping. Make your own list.

But not just in a "I guess I should do these less" way - in a "I will give this up for a day in order to use the time I would normally give to coffee/shopping/the internet to praying for something specific". How about a fasting challenge for St Catherine's? We need all these grants for the work on the hall and for extra salaries: how about we all take on a fasting challenge and pray for them as we do so?

Remembering of course Matthew 6. Verse 16 reminds us: When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. So we don't go around telling everyone what we are doing and why. We don't make a fuss of it and show off our great spirituality. It is something we take on, and do seriously, but keep between ourselves and God.

But we also remember verses 17-18: But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. He rewards those who earnestly and honestly seek him. It's a promise we would do well to lean on and trust.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Five Two

At 2-0 down, with half-time looming, Gill said, "That's not good". "No worries," I replied, remembering watching United come from 3-0 down to Spurs eight years ago and beat them 5-3. "We'll win 4-2".

I watched that game on Match of the Day at Chris Holmwood's. And as we shipped three goals, I remained upbeat about the result, and he, a Hammers fan, had an inner envy at the assurance of the United fan in the face of adversity. Of course, I'd seen the full-time results earlier, before the highlights show, and he didn't know this. Oh well.

But this time I was watching the game 'live', and still had that certainty, with that memory playing large in my mind. As it turned out, the memory should have played larger.

4-2 was pessimistic. In 23 glorious minutes, United put five past Spurs, who were helpless to stop the Champions' onslaught. And surely United will be Champions again now.

With 5 games left we need a maximum of 10 points out of 15 available. With 4 games left, Liverpool have only 12 points they could possibly score in order to make us need 10. I'm with the boys in the photo.

Since my mid-twenties, United have been the dominant force in English football. It ain't over yet.

And you may well look disturbed by this, Mr Mascherano, as may all your Merseyside colleagues, but there is as little point arguing with facts as with the ref.

Past and Present

I have only two images of Charlie on this computer. The classic, Charlie in the snow, and a family snap shot with the whole menagerie, circa 1993 - Mum, Gill, me, Heidi the Weimeraner, and Cherokee & Bradshaw the Persian cats. Charlie died seven years ago this week. Seems like forever. Seems like yesterday.

That dog could make you laugh & cry and he loved everyone, and everyone loved Charlie. He was remarkable. The snow photo: he loved snow. But that day - when I opened the door, the snow was deeper than he was, and as he disappeared into it, he jumped up with a confused look on his face, and then he just set to enjoying it. We were snowed in, in Croeserw. Later, he was bedraggled and dripping with ice, and still loving every second. Living with him brought unexpected joy every day.

Matty is a totally different beast; not so prolific with his affections to the population at large, his gentle soul has done the impossible and worked its way even deeper into mine. He is the most affectionate animal - but I think only to me. The rest of you have to take my word that the slightly shy and diffident dog you see is far from the whole story. There is a whole different Matty waiting for you to leave, which is why he is pleased to see you, and to see you go!

And this is Ben with Martha. I think Martha & Matty are very similar. She won't come to me. I've been here over a week, and she's come close once. But with Ben - she's all over him. And Gill tells me she is the most loving cat. Here she is, cuddling a can of Mountain Dew. I believe Gill.

I still miss the most sociable animal ever. And have in his place a remarkably different one, so similar on the outside, occupying just as much of my heart.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Well Played

I think this isn't out at home for a while. So I walked (yes, a very unpatriotic act here) to the local cinema this afternoon and enjoyed State of Play. The short review - excellent. Both male leads (and really it's a double header between Russell Crowe & Ben Affleck, with the female leads being supporting roles) are very good. It's a good political thriller with nice twists, requisite corporate baddies and a suitable last-minute re-think. I confess to liking BA as an actor more than RC, but don't hold that against me! And do go see this when you can - it's thoroughly enjoyable.

Now, it's back to sitting by the pool in the sunshine. Derek, I'm trying to work out that challenge...

Tuvok Obama

If my last post had a reference that left you confused, I hope this helps. Tuvok, incidentally, is the Vulcan Star Trek officer wearing the tie. The other guy is President of the United States. You should hear them both speak, which only adds to the confusion...


This made me laugh out loud. Plus, I've been watching some old Star Trek in anticipation of the new movie. Anyone think Obama & Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager might be related? The face, the voice, the everything...
And thanks to Chris & Kurt here who have been teaching me to pronounce the President's name properly. Apparently it's "Baroque" Obama.


So Gill & Ben & I went to church on Sunday. It was good to go together. And the band was great - I mean very good indeed. Plus when you are faced with that kind of technology in a church you have to be impressed - it makes our screen look decidedly tame, as they have videos running, live feed behind the words, all kinds of graphics, lighting rig etc. And I must have been greeted 37 times before I took my seat. Scarlette & Chuck & family seem to have settled really well into the church now, which is great.

But Gill hasn't, and I do get why not. I kind of hated the sermon.

A huge part of this is cultural. Church is always cultural - because it is about people and God, and though God is God is God, the people bit is the stuff that changes, and we worship and relate to God from within our own culture. Of course, if you are lucky to be British, then that culture is pretty godly and so we are the lucky ones, but for everyone else there are real issues they just don't see... (!!!)

The sermon was number two in a series on "the Bible's Se7en (sic) deadly sins". The front of church looked like this:
Not quite this, as I can't find the picture on the net, but pretty much this. Their art dept is good, and does a good job. But did somebody ever stop and go - "do we really want people to come for church for two months and face 'lust, pride, greed etc as the focus of their worship?" Seems not. So there are no Scriptures to look at, no Jesus, just Se7en deadly sins. Hmm. I found that hard as a worship focus. There is a cross over in a corner, but it really is over in a corner, and it is dark and not lit over there.

A cultural issue? Well, it might not matter as much to them as it does to me what they are looking at. They might not notice.

As for that sermon. Let's start with the concept of "the Bible's se7en deadly sins". They don't exist. It's an idea from Roman Catholic dogma, which has become vernacular, and finds its origins in the 6th Century Pope Gregory the Great. Trying to tie Proverbs 6.16 with this list, as the preacher did on Sunday, is pretty poor. Yep, there are seven sins listed, but they really are not the same. Saying that a heart that devises wickedness is lust "right there" really won't do. The Bible calls lust "lust" when it wants to.

After that, it was a "good advice" sermon. When the Devil gets you, this is what you should do to resist. Now - fine. But. BUT - this is where the cultural stuff really kicks in. In Britain, a church with good fellowship, a Biblical priority (not that there was much Bible in this service or sermon - we never had a Bible reading, for example), decent worship etc - such a church would not necessarily be so very conservative. Women - that men lust after you is your fault for dressing so provocatively. You are flaunting yourselves. Stop it - or do it at home only for your husbands. (There was no issue of men preening themselves in any way.) I am not making this up - this what we were told.

And ultimately - the main way to avoid lust is to make sure you are having regular sex with your spouse. I did wonder if Gill & I were the only non-married people in the building. I guess it was possible. Though there were teenagers present, maybe they didn't count. Being adult & single clearly was unthinkable. This again is what I mean by cultural differences. In the UK, there is such a rise in single adults that such a line is tantamount to pastoral neglect. Is that not true here? Or is serial marriage honestly seen as better than responsible singleness?

But more than this: Jesus wasn't mentioned. I said this was an advice sermon. So it was. Self help. The pastor's tips. Occasional proof texts thrown in. But no Jesus. No grace. And no cross. Which means - no recognition that people fail and hurt and need help to get up & try again with forgiveness and a clean start. If you are preaching on sin, how can you do it without ever mentioning the cross? This guy did it.

Gill & I had a good chat afterwards. And I saw lovely things there - good people, a great set up, a super band, an amazing technical awareness, real growth - but I do understand why Gill has stopped going. She says every now & then he preached in a way that really spoke to her, but too often it was like this. The first time I heard him I thought he was great. This time - really, and trying to be aware of the cultural stuff that does make a huge difference, I'm struggling to give more than a 1 out of 10.

So here are some pictures to cheer me up. Gill & the cats, George & Martha - George is the white one, Martha the grey. George climbs up from this cat nest up on top of the TV unit up to a high shelf where Gill has some pottery...

And here are some birds that wandered down the road. Herons, I think, which apparently mate for life, and which clearly have social outings. They also sound like velociraptors when they get distressed...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Levite Camp

No, I didn't spy any fried chicken on my trip to Kentucky.

Yes, I had a great time.

JD Walt has a great community of men and women who are training at Asbury Seminary and who care passionately about the theology and practice of worship. It was a pleasure to spend time with him (as always) and them, and to pass on some of the scriptural insights that have shaped my walk with Jesus.

I missed the old banners that used to be around the campus - "Where head and heart go hand in hand" they said. Apparently it's still the seminary motto, but it's not on the banners now. The Wesleyan holiness tradition of producing ministers trained in academia and formed in spiritual life has perhaps emphasised the former most strongly more recently, but Asbury is a special place, and it is a special treat to be invited to speak there.

JD's Levite camp is an optional day for any interested in grappling with theological issues surrounding worship and working on how they affect those who would oversee the practice of the same. I think this kind of day is a wonderful initiative.

I was delighted by the questions that came my way. And by my inability to answer some of them. One wanted me to work an answer on idolatry in the systems of the world - how we allow things like democracy or capitalism to become an idol, and how we address that. I could only agree that what I was saying allowed this, but then glad as I was that this question arose, I felt that it was not my job to have all the answers. Brighter folk will work with the tools they are given and the better questions they find in order to reach more helpful solutions. Tom - go for it.

Silverio (who was hard working and kind and my JD-appointed taxi driver!) said something profound as he drove me back to the airport today. He felt that many of them had gotten used to the deeper level of understanding worship as lifestyle and not just as the "worship service", but that I was pushing it even deeper - worship as relationship. He found that moving, and inspiring, and it made a deep biblical sense of things for him.

I guess I'd never thought of things in precisely those comparative terms, but I liked what he said. Worship as not just the service, and not even just the lifestyle - but as the essential relationship for which we are created.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Four Dreams

Four dreams.

An orchestra rehearsal, pre=Easter. It's hard work. I am the conductor, and I go over details of the score with the orchestra before we start to play. Just a few details - things I think important. Then as we start to play - it isn't good. The strings sound weedy. I ask the violins to play with more confidence, and I'm feeling stressed and pushed for time. One of them, a girl who played violin for me 20 years ago, replies under her breath that "an orchestra plays better if it feels good & knows what it's doing".

I take it personally & want to say that I know what I am doing - but it occurs to me that I have so focussed on the little details that I have forgotten to communicate the big picture, the sense of the music, and no-one gets it, no-one has a feel for it.

"Shall we forget it?" I ask, not petulantly, but trying to be kind. "No," she replies; the concert will be for a charity, to help others, and we will raise lots of cash. They just want to understand in order to play better. And I need to do my job better for that to happen.

Number 2.

I am with Cheryl, one of the pros on "Dancing With The Stars", the US version of "Strictly Come Dancing". We are in the back streets of Paris. Now I am the learner, she is the teacher. We are enjoying every minute - and it is obvious: it feels right, I can follow her lead, she teaches well. I understand the dance, the sense of it. Learning one to one is good. This is not one person at the front of a crowd failing to communicate perfectly, this is a whole different ball game.

She does something unexpected. "What happens next?" she asks. "I do a cross step?" I reply, doing it. "Perfect!" she smiles.

Learning is so natural.

Number 3.

I go down a corridor, and there are the Byron Jones Big Band in a classroom. (The picture is Byron Jenkins & crew - but there are some of the same guys!) Members of the band look over at me and smile & wave as I enter. They've already started playing. There are more of them than usual.

As I look, in addition to the students Byron always has, there are young kids sitting alongside the experienced players. They are playing the same music - and because they are playing alongside experienced musicians, they are both understanding it and doing it, though it is hard for them. And then they play something simple and fun to break up the pace a bit.

A different style of learning again. And again, one that is working. A community growing in understanding and practice.

Number 4.

A Party, in a big swanky room (this picture is our church hall, but there you go). Everyone is together around round tables. A fabulous meal is being served. The theme is "18th Century" but there is still a jazz band playing the music. I complain when they play "All of Me" (I say - "that wasn't written till 1953!" failing of course to get the point. The lyrics of the song - "Why not take all of me?"

In the community of faith, commitment comes in many ways.

It's a party. Clare MacInnes, long standing friend and doyenne of party throwing, is in charge. I am simply there, observing the dynamic of celebration & everyone joining in. One course seemlessly becomes another as what appears to be left-over and unwanted is transformed into something remarkable and new before our eyes. She calls people out - they are notable for various reasons; some are leaving us. One or two say a few words. We celebrate all of them and give thanks. We are a community of joy.

We should have more parties.

"But Lord," I say, "parties are hard work."
"Yes," he replies, "but worth it."

* * *

Now - I get what all this is about. I get how we learn and worship in different ways. I get how I need to keep the vision of the work of our community alive, and not just the detail, or the detail can become oppressive and lifeless without the vision to drive it. I get how celebration and thanksgiving and being a family together with joy - both in our worship and at play - needs to be reclaimed at times. We need more parties.

I don't record this for people to analyse (though feel free - I may even publish the comments that really help!) but to remind myself of this night. Four times have I woken up thinking - Oh, I see, right. That matters. I must hold on to that. And here is a place and a way to remember and to make it hard to forget. And to come back to so that I can continue to think and pray.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Heading up to FarmStrong

Well, having made it to the Sunshine State (which lives up to its name, gloriously), I now travel on to the Bluegrass State. To spend a couple of days with JD Walt of FarmStrong, who has asked me to teach a little at his seminary... though what I have to offer I have no idea, when what is below was posted on his Easter blog!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

True Meaning

Thanks to Ben Sternke for this uplifting and theologically helpful take on the meaning of Easter. Well, at least it has more spiritual content than the BBC this year.

Though Radio Wales rang up, asking me to condemn football matches being played on Easter Sunday, and seemed non-plussed when I replied that as every Sunday was a "little Easter", either I had to condemn Sunday football per se or come off all hypocritical and throw away my Sky Sports subscription. Added to which I wasn't happy that Christians should be presented as killjoys in a season of Celebration.

And, given the state of religious broadcasting this Easter, the fans of Aston Villa really don't want to be denied the only miracle on offer on TV on Sunday, do they?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Till We Have Faces

"Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love."

With these words John begins his account of the night before Jesus died. He tells a tale of the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus, and a long series of challenges and commands and encouragements before they leave and pray and events unfold.

Last night, as I spoke on this, a thought occurred to me. About the foot-washing. About Jesus assuming that role.

How many times have you been for a pizza or pasta & the waiter has come after serving the food with an vastly oversized grinder, and stood there offering, "Pepper?" How many times have we all been amused by the absurdity of the situation (do we really need that much pepper?), just quietly refused or embarrassedly accepted as the enormous grinder comes over our shoulder?

How many times have you noticed the face of the waiter offering the pepper?

In Jesus' culture, the servant who washed the feet of the guests was the waiter with the pepper grinder. Always there at the restaurant. Never noticed. The task needed doing in a place where the dust of the day covered you and you were all but barefoot. But nobody saw who took care of it.

Except on this occasion, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love by giving that person a face. They most certainly saw who the pepper guy was that night. And in that action Jesus showed them that he saw who it was every time. No person was beneath his notice, beyond his sight. His love sees all, reaches all, embraces all, dies for all, and raises all.

"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." I have given you faces. Each of you. Every last one of you. Now do the same: treat every person with this love and dignity, for every person is worth loving - to death. Don't fail to see what I see; receive my love and share it.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


We had a wedding in church today. There was a classic example of something our building does brilliantly - and something I've never seen before, which really moved me.

This was a couple who knew what they wanted. No organist - they brought a (fantastic) string quartet in to play everything. They wrote out their orders of service without consulting me and we had to do a bit of re-writing. They even got tiny tots to walk up the aisle unaided (frankly, a task unheard of in human history). The bride wanted bridesmaids to walk in ahead of her, and I don't usually allow this - because of the thing the building does - but she had chosen a piece of music which made sense, and so I had the bridesmaids enter through a different door, and then...

You see, we have a south entrance for weddings. Liturgical west, actually, opposite the altar, but geographical south. Unlike most Anglican churches (which are built on an east-west axis) we are built north-south. And that means, that when we open that South door as the bride arrives, she is bathed in sunlight, the whole entrace frames her in silhouette, and the effect is quite magical. You don't want to waste that on bridesmaids.

So the bride came in through that door after the others had used the usual congregational entrance, and the sun came out on cue and the moment was stunning.

But still more stunning was the moment when, as she walked up the aisle on her father's arm and approached her husband-to-be, this remarkably organised and efficient and everything-in-place young woman mouthed to her still-just-about-fiance, "I love you". The spontaneity of the moment, the depth of her feeling, the truth of their love hit me full force. I loved it, and will not forget it.

Obviously I have no photo of this for you. I'm the kind of vicar who doesn't let cameras in to church, so that memories are memories, not photos taken that replace memories of these moments.

But I do have a photo of a different kind of love for you. This was taken yesterday, and has its own sweetness. Forgive my indulgence, and enjoy!