Monday, December 26, 2011

preach it, ma'am!

It's been an interesting Christmas on TV! Obviously I loved Doctor Who, but something else remarkable happened: The Queen has been asserting herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and giving her clergy at large a fine example of how to preach on major festivals. The Christmas Day royal broadcast has been a staple of our national diet since 1932 when Rudyard Kipling (who of course is most famous for such immortal lines as "I want to be like you-oo-oo, oobidoo") wrote the first one for George V which began with the words "I speak to you from my home and from my heart".

The Queen this year grabbed Christmas by the throat, clearly being irritated by the media spotlight on the new-atheist front & the general smugness of the Guardianista set, and told us quite clearly that:
1. Christmas is a Christian festival
2. We all need saving - from ourselves sometimes
3. Christianity is about forgiveness
3. Philosophers are all very well but God sent us a Saviour which is better (goodness, was that her obit for Christopher Hitchens?)
4. We can have the life he came to offer us right now
5. Here's a prayer from a carol - pray it with me
6. I wish you all would, because it's what life is all about.

Of course, she did it in a wonderfully gracious & Queeny way, and it starts at about 4'55'' on this video:

In many ways, just reading the text makes it even more clear. Preach it, ma'am, preach it. As Greg Downes wrote on his Facebook page:
"When I heard this I thought Her Majesty should lead a church -then I remembered she did! Would that all her Vicars could communicate with her gracious conviction, loving faith and gentle boldness..."
The BBC also broadcast a lovely musical offering, A Musical Nativity with John Rutter. That link probably only works in the UK, and I expect for a limited time. It's a programme of JR's music & other Christmas carols tracing the Christmas story, and it is beautiful. Do take the time, it is well worth it. The presenter at one point tries to get Rutter to admit he's something of an agnostic (a reasonable well-known fact, despite the words of his carols which are beautiful and often very faithful). Rutter deflects her admirably. There may be a current trend for everyone in the media to poo-poo faith, but he does nothing of the sort. The Church has nurtured him, and he cannot imagine life without its services and liturgies and traditions. He "struggles signing on dotted lines" was his rather gracious way of putting his position forwards.

John, I think HMQ might be ringing you...

In case you can't watch the whole of the programme, here's a clip of King's Cambridge singing the first carol he wrote, at age 16 (spit):

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Merry Christmas

I don't know if you've caught the second season of Rev, the BBC2 comedy? The first season, it seemed to me, often went for the easy joke; the second season has gone for the longer reach, the character situation, and has felt much better for it. Earlier in the run I posted about the hilariously unrealistic vision of the uber-pastoral bishop who swept in to sort out a meta-crisis. Just when he was needed. Unasked. With perfect insight.

Not exactly my experience of reality, though it's what we all hope happens - and I think I've had excellent bishops.

The series finished this week with a seasonal episode looking at the bleaker side of Christmas. Adam, the vicar, does his best to do good to all, whilst all around him everyone else does their best to confound him. The resident alcoholic gives him a black eye; the midnight mass crowd go wild; the old lady he wants to visit dies whilst the archdeacon delays him, pointlessly, again; his father in law bullies him and his wife with no regard for the work he is doing or the stresses he faces.

And at the end, something wonderful occurs. As he gathers a disparate group of people around a table for Christmas lunch, ostensibly for the poor and needy, but infact seemingly for everyone we have seen in the series (all poor & needy?) it turns, briefly, ever so briefly, into a glorious tableau of the Last Supper around the enormous turkey ready before them.

All that pain, all that struggle, all that effort and service - becomes beautiful. A masterpiece. And seen and noticed by nobody there. Only by us, the observers granted, for a moment, God's-eye-view of what is happening.

Matt, my faithful Springer, sitting on the chair by the tree in the photo for you at the top of this piece, is, I expect, enjoying his last Christmas with me this year.

Today we went to see Roger, our new vet.

Matt has been shivering a lot at night; he's been restless in the evenings; and he has started to have the occasional little accident indoors. Wetting the floor a little. This happened about a year ago, and it was an infection; a few tablets & it cleared up. I took him to the vet in the hope that this was what we were seeing again; another infection. Instead, I received what no pet owner wants to receive - that sad look that medical practitioners give when they have no good news left.

Matt's kidney disease has progressed. There is no infection. There is no further treatment. He is being brave. We are not quite at the end. We are on the road there. There are further signs to watch out for. Who knows what happens next?

Merry Christmas.

Yet in the pain, the struggle, the effort perhaps there can still be something beautiful, a work of art. God's-eye-view, if I may be granted sight of it. The incarnation, Christmas, the way God enters this world and takes on every painful, glorious, earthly part of our experience speaks of him owning every bit of this. Fear. Loss. Grief. And with them, love, hope, trust. Gratitude for time together not bitterness for its ending, however and whenever that may come.

Life is a gift, and its fulness brings joys and sadnesses, but what is the alternative? Inaction, stultification, fear of leaving the room for what may happen next, the closed heart that never feels in case what it feels is painful. We should not be so foolish as to seek nor as to relish pain; but when it comes, Christmas tells us we have a Saviour who knows its bite as well as we do, and more. And he holds our hands, wipes our tears, speaks his peace until we rest within. To live is to love is to trust is to believe is to hope is to look up when we have been cast down and know - know - the whole picture beyond our seeing may yet be somehow beautiful. After all the pictures point us to an innocent young girl bearing the Messiah. A carpenter raising a King. Shepherds greeting a Saviour. Wise men worshipping the Author of all wisdom. Creation gathered in a stable. Truths beyond mystery, things seen but not understood, known but not fully recognised.

And the echoes of it in my small corner, with tears reminding me that the colours of this day will also work their way into that greater, living masterpiece. God with us: even here, even now.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

ever rolling stream

So here he is. My successor. The future unveiled! Peter Lewis, vicar of the Vale of Neath parish in Llandaff Diocese has been appointed to St Catherine's in Pontypridd.

An excellent appointment! Peter & I were contemporaries in Oxford as undergraduates, I think have both enjoyed time in Aberystwyth, and I have seen his work in the Vale of Neath and been impressed by it no end. He is a deeply committed man of God, and he and Martine will be wonderful servants for the community of Pontypridd.

I left for all sorts of reasons. High on that list was the very strong sense that I had done what I was supposed to do, and that I needed to go so that someone else could come and take the church on in ways that I could not. Peter is such a "someone else". He will build on what has happened over the last eleven years, but will take things as the Lord leads him, and will bless both the church and the community as he does so. He has an enormous heart to reach out and draw people to faith, and the way he stood up and spoke out for a community this year during the Gleision Colliery tragedy showed his calibre.

His involvement with New Wine Wales has been excellent, and I am glad of that too. I remember him as a fine flautist - and I am sure he will encourage the growing band of enthusiastic musicians who are gathering together at St Catherine's.

I did not speak to anyone, suggesting they should apply for the job, after I left or whilst I was preparing to leave. If I had done so, Peter would have been at the top of my list. Not because he would copy me - far from it. But because he is strong, godly, obedient and faithful. Such a man will bless any community. I am thrilled he is going to Pontypridd. Praise God!


A hospital appointment, a road trip, a funeral, a pint in the Bunch, supper with the Shadow Treasury Secretary and lots of Beethoven. It's been an eventful day or two.

The road trip was, of course, 500 miles there & home to John Murphy's funeral, which saw me back in Pontypridd, back at St Catherine's, back in a dog collar in front of a congregation. That in itself would have made the old man smile his quiet, knowing smile.

I spoke at the service, and really I'm not going to go over what I said. It was lovely to see all kinds of people there, and to say brief hellos. There were all kinds of people not there in a way that reminded me of an old preacher's tale. The question goes, "Have you heard of Albert McMakin?" and unless you know how the story works out, the answer is usually no. So then there's a second question: "Have you heard of Billy Graham?" and here, even these days, the answer is usually yes. Albert McMakin was the guy who drove Billy Graham to the tent meeting where he was converted. The guy who invited him to go there. No Albert, no Billy.

When I left in July I received so many public thank yous. But the families who benefit from the children's work at St Catherine's should know - without John Murphy, that wouldn't be happening. The older people enjoying St Caths Plus should know - without John Murphy, that wouldn't be happening. The members of the congregation who have joined the church since 2000 all ought to understand - without John Murphy, St Catherine's would be very, very different. He's the guy who made sure I went there in the first place. Who made sure I stayed. Who encouraged me, gave me ideas, smoothed the way with everyone so that every early change took root. He prayed and he enabled and he listened to God so that what we did worked. It was nice that people said nice things about me; but without John, I couldn't have begun to enjoy eleven of the best years of my life or help St Catherine's live a little.

Every vicar needs a John Murphy. And every John deserves to be remembered. Part of me saw all those who had come, and part of me was very aware of all those who hadn't - because they didn't know him, or know how much they owed him. No matter. Least of all to John - he is with those who have gone before, and many will join him, and he has his eyes full of the Saviour he longed to see.

Road, trip, - Hospital appointment? Oh yes, I have this thing on my back which needs sorting out; the consultant was very encouraging. The appointment was on Thursday morning, before I set out. "There are 200 ways of dealing with this; which means none of them work. We can do it, but it will come back. Does it hurt?" Stupid question. I've had it for ages. I'm only bothering him now because it has got past the live with it stage. "OK, I'll sort it then." So an op, and a general anaesthetic to boot in late January. Hooray. It's good to have something to look forwards to in the New Year...

A pint in the Bunch of Grapes with Mark. He tweeted rather nicely - Beer, and desserts, and nothing has changed.   
Indeed, nothing. General, gentle chat over a fine pint. Though I'd forgotten that this close to Christmas the normal quiet of a Friday afternoon in the Bunch is replaced by the aftermatch gatherings of office party lunches.

And supper with Owen & Liz Smith & family. Even simple food on their table tastes like heaven. Jack & Issy are well on their way to becoming fine pianists, and are making excellent use of my old Bentley. Owen & I may have also found his local and enjoyed a pint or two there... I am thrilled he is enjoying life in Parliament, and am sure he will make his mark on the Shadow Treasury team. If only he could find someone as left wing as he is...

And lots of Beethoven. Following a review in the Telegraph, I downloaded a complete set of Beethoven symphonies by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig & Riccardo Chailly. There are moments I would like a touch more hushed awe, but this is Beethoven with added wow factor. It is probably twenty years since I last bought a complete symphony set (and that was a CD release of an old George Szell set to go with my Beethoven-light Richard Hickox discs that I recently discovered don't play anymore) and I have to say - I don't remember Ludwig being this exciting. Who knew? I am listening out of order (one, two, three, four, seven, nine so far) and Nine is awesome. But all have been exhilarating. Genuinely awesome musicmaking, with a wonderful resonance in the recorded sound. Ah but then it's Decca. Good old Decca; they know how to do these things properly.

And they have made a nice contrast with the Christmas music I always have on - lots of John Rutter (either singing John Rutter carols, or doing nice a capella stuff), and a mix of Diana Krall & Harry Connick Jr who both have bothered to put some of their very best material on their Christmas albums. Who would do that? Why? DK's Christmas album may be her very best; HCJ's Jingle Bells is a jazz joy. And both contrast with the awesomely awful Michael Buble's Christmas album. Oh my word. I am a Buble fan. But words fail me here... Who is responsible for the car-crash recording of Santa Baby? Who failed to say, "Err, Michael, there's a really good reason this song is only ever sung by a girl..."? And for sheer ineptitude of diction, technique & audible insincerity his Ave Maria is possible even worse. Mr Buble might possible 'ave Maria, along with Mandy, Martha, and many of the other girls waiting outside in the queue; as for singing the Ave, I'm not so convinced from listening that he does this so often. This disc rates right down there with Kiri Te Kanawa singing Michel le Grand. Though, to be fair, I am judging both against their own standards; if it was released by a pub singer in Otley, I'd be raving about it. Oh buy it for yourself. You'll probably love it more than the Beethoven.

501? Did I hear someone ask?

My last post was my 500th. Now onwards towards the 1000 mark. You know I can do it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

farewell, old friend

I have just heard that my old friend, John Murphy, has died.

John was warden at St Catherine's back in 2000 when they were last looking for a vicar, and it was he who chose me to fill that post. He had turned down various worthy contenders, men of age & reputation, telling the bishop he "wanted a young man who won't change anything".

I remember Barry (the then bishop, now archbishop) telling me this at the time with his usual exasperation. "Doesn't he realise the Gospel is about change?" he asked me. Well, I thought to myself, if he gets me, my guess is he'll get change-a-plenty... And I think that knowing this, Barry sent me off to see John as something of a 'teach you a lesson' candidate. A little joke.

Which backfired.

Because John & I hit it off immediately. John, for reasons known only to the Lord (given the church St Catherine's was in those days), was acutely aware that without some remarkable intervention, his beloved St Catherine's was going to go the way of all the congregations around and fizzle out. He was desperate before God that this should not happen; it wasn't that he didn't want change - that was just his language; what he actually meant was that it wouldn't be changed into a High Church Anglican parish like everything else for miles around.

I assured him that wouldn't be our direction of travel.

We managed to find a Bible (eventually) in the church, and I read him a passage of Isaiah about the Lord restoring the fortunes of his people, and John was sold. He rang the bishop - we'll have him. The bishop was, understandably, taken aback. And pleased. And so it came to pass.

I hope John won't mind me sharing this next story.

On my first Sunday at St Catherine's - and you have to understand, St Catherine's was text-book "civic Anglican": two candles and a surplice. Not evangelical. Certainly not charismatic. Goodness, the very thought of it... They still had a robed choir, organ & chanted psalms back then. Anyway. On my first Sunday, John was walking to church from his home on the Common, when he got as far as the park gates and suddenly he heard a voice.

There was no-one there, and he was not given to flights of fancy, but he heard a voice, and he knew who it was.

And the voice said, clear as day: "You did not choose Marcus, and the bishop did not choose Marcus, but I have chosen him for St Catherine's."

In all honesty, for a new vicar with a million ideas and all of them totally radical and off the scale in terms of anything his church has ever experienced, that kind of backing is pretty much gold-dust. And John backed me 100% from that moment on. Even when he disagreed with me. Even when he was right to disagree with me.

He was more than a friend. I could trust him with anything. Every vicar needs a John Murphy.

When he became house-bound, I used to call on him & tell him what was on my mind. The plans I had, the things I wanted to do, the stuff that troubled me. He would listen and advise, and usually his advice was sound. Rarely would I walk away and not act as we had agreed. He was old-school Anglican, and I don't recall hearing him pray out loud much, though he would sometimes offer a few words, yet he was a deeply, profoundly prayerful man with a rich relationship with his Lord.

Some people just have a habit of listening to God; somehow John had it. And of speaking what he heard, though he might not have put it in those terms.

He loved golf. I played him once - on the Wii. He was proudly displaying his skills to me (in his eighties), and I'd never done it, and after two holes I hit something on the control & it reset. Generously, because I had been awful, he said, "Don't worry, we'll start again, you'll get the hang of it." Of course, for a moment my competitive edge had simply slipped his mind. Poor John. I beat him hollow. It took him ages to forgive me...

There was a time when we made a decision together - I think he may even have talked me into it - which turned out bad. It made things difficult for me, and actually became quite painful. He agonised over it; I told him off, gently. The responsibility had been mine. And if it had gone wrong, so what? We stood together through the good & the bad. He helped me cope with the aftermath and gave me a shoulder to lean on. We did it together.

Ken Hayward would make merciless fun of John's foghorn tenor; John would play his own tricks on Ken. I never met Walt, the third member of their life-long gang. When one hears of friendships that go back decades, there is real pleasure in the strength of the bonds of human kindness and love. When one finds friendship with surprising people, across the decades, there is also remarkable joy.

My world is brighter, bigger, better for my friendship with John. He has gone before me to his Joan, to his friends who are already waiting in his & their Lord's company. My eyes are filled with tears as I type, but they are confused tears, mixing the natural sadness of hearing this news with the ongoing simple, true joy of what Christian fellowship & the communion of saints is all about. He is not gone. He is gone before.

After John's health stopped him coming to church on Sundays, I placed his kneeler in my vicar's stall. So I could keep it warm for him. Now John, keep a place warm for me. Till we meet again.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

something old, something new

I am enjoying the church I am settling into here. I am enjoying the people, and the fact that I have no responsibility here. If the boiler goes (and it hasn't) it's not my fault. Glory.

I am slowly making friends. And taking on occasional tasks. I'm running a singing group for the Carol Service. Oh yes, some old habits die hard.

The clergy are caring & faithful, and the worship is slightly chaotic in a general village Anglican way. Especially given there are no musicians, so everything is on CD. (I have played a couple of times, and will do more in the new year, but not every week.) The choice of songs occasionally delights me, and sometimes completely bemuses me - and that's a wonderful experience for a control freak like me. I am actually enjoying the powerlessness of it!

The sermon today, and the reading of Scripture in the service, made me stop and think. I expect the way it gave me pause is fairly commonplace, and I could have been almost anywhere & had the same experience. I enjoyed the sermon - I think the preaching team here does a great & faithful job. But we do seem to omit a large chunk of the Bible in our worship...

Personally, I don't think it's possible to understand the New Testament without a good working knowledge of the Old. I certainly don't think you get any of the detail, but more than that - I don't think you get much of the bigger picture. I am, and this increases as I get older, a fan of the Lectionary: for all its faults (and they are very many) it presents people with a good mix of Bible in their regular worship, and that good mix has a wonderful power to open up hearts & prepare the way for truth and love.

When I was first going to church, as a fifteen or sixteen year old kid, I picked this up from somewhere: I understood that the general plan of Salvation went like this - God created the Universe & it was good, and put people in it whom he loved; but the people sinned & everything went bad. So because God loved the people he formed a plan to bring the people back to himself - and the plan was the Law as found in the Old Testament. Only, because people were so sinful, they couldn't help themselves, and even when given this wonderful gift, they still sinned, and no-one could keep it & be good enough to get back to God. So because he loved us so much, God thought again - and came up with another plan: Jesus and the cross. And this time, because the plan didn't depend on us, but on himself, it worked.

I may have been taught this outright, or I may just have picked this up. With respect it is utter bunkum and if you have ever believed it or passed it on to anyone, please desist right now & engage in serious repentance. No wonder you ignore the Old Testament.

Let me just point out what that theology says: God's plan A failed; Jesus is plan B.

Jesus is no afterthought. Jesus is not plan B. Jesus is God's plan for us from all eternity. Always and forever plan A. Jesus is no-one's version of "second best". Please. I mean.

So why the Old Testament? Why the Patriarchs, the Law, the Prophets?

The Old Testament is God's gift to us so that, when the fulness of his plan of salvation came to pass, we might understand it. The Law creates the world-view which enables the gift of Jesus to be understood. Without it, we are whistling in the dark, making notes on the cold night air, sometimes finding snatches of melody, but missing the harmonies, the depth of accompaniment, the symphonic sweep of the grand music of life that God has for us.

You cannot understand the cross without understanding why the Temple was based around sacrifice, and without an understanding of what those sacrifices represented. Or you will end up thinking God was angry with people and needed appeasing; which is simply not a Biblical concept.

This morning we had Mark 1. And, as I said, a lovely, reflective sermon on it, which I enjoyed very much.

Yet I longed for - those colours of the Old that make the New shimmer with life. The hopes of Malachi & Isaiah were touched upon, but they are not our common language in this church, and so it is hard to build upon them. And as for Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the wonderful Elijah morsel (2 Kings 1.8-9 is the reference, from Mark 1.6; it's a beautiful drop-in, overflowing with moments of meaning) - we went in other directions. I guess Mark's announcement of the end of Exile only happens if you know there has been an Exile.

Does it matter?

I'm not helping to put up the church Christmas tree here. I did my own yesterday. I'm not organising the running order for the Carol Service. I'm not worried one little bit about the budget matching the beginning of year forecast.

No, it doesn't matter. It's just an observation. It's not my concern, is it? Yes it does matter, because you can take the preacher out of the pulpit, but I still love the word, and I still love being under it, in it, immersed & humbled by it. And when the sun shines through a stained glass window and the colours are awash with glory, I love to feel the range of hues play across my heart & soul, and in the grace of such moments wonder at which ones match up with me today. Colour me Biblical. Throw at me something old, something new, something surprising, something true.

How can you hear the tune if all you are given is a note or two from somewhere near the end? How can you read the book if all you have is the final page? I just miss the more. The stuff that makes me sit up and go - Oh goodness, look at that! God is amazing! And that's what the Old Testament provides. Wonder. Fulness. Beauty beyond words. And something understood.