Sunday, March 31, 2013

garden centre

Picture the scene: a garden; the dark of day; blazing angels on guard; God present, walking, but unseen; a woman (whose name has always been rebellion) in tears; disappointment tinges the air; fear - and a sense that nothing will ever be the same.

I'm painting a picture not of Mary Magdalene in John 20, but Eve in Genesis 3.

Salvation is about putting things right - things that have been wrong for a very long time. There was a garden that ended in tears; on Easter Day we find another that starts that way.

For here the great story changes. We still fail. We still lose. We still disappoint. But Jesus is triumphant. And so the shadow of the Great Garden is finally lifted, and the tombs that have kept humanity locked into a spiral of despair are finally opened.

He is not here! He is not in the past! He is risen!

And when the walking God speaks to the weeping woman this time, there is no shame. No recriminations, no further punishment. Now Mary (the name means 'rebellion') in loving obedience wipes away the memory of Eve and becomes the first witness to the new reality. Her words change the world.

To adapt some words I recently heard from Ben Witherington, Christ's history transforms our destiny. His resurrection reshapes our every day and brings God's reign and rule into play now. The things that have held us down are no longer ultimate. Christ is risen, and we are in Christ. So his story wins, not the things that used to make us less.

For we are raised with Christ - not simply in the glorious future of the Resurrection that will transform all things, but now. Today. As well. His love is beating sin and death and despair and all evil for us  - for you - today.

In Calverley Church this morning, I spoke of a time when my world seemed to fall apart. And yet Christ took hold of me and did not simply give me strength to endure and get through those days - at the end I was more than at the beginning. What I went on to do, I could not have done before. He raised me up.

We are not Christians in order to grit our teeth and get through life, but to hold the hand of the One who is the first fruits of the Resurrection. Holding that Risen hand, we find ourselves lifted up. Today, in a hundred small ways. Eventually, O eventually we too will rise gloriously, eternally, immortally.

He rose in a garden to release the chains that bind us. Salvation is about putting things right - things that have been wrong for a very long time. Resurrection is about allowing Christ's history to transform our destiny - making what is true work for real in our lives. Making it new. Working it out. Seeing it happen.

And it's about feeling the hand that touched Mary, touch our shoulders, and hearing the voice that called her name, call ours. Then we too get up, and run with obedience wherever he asks, with joy; because when the Risen Lord Jesus is around, everything changes.

Friday, March 29, 2013


WIth almost no reference to Good Friday anywhere visible in the TV listings, I turned to YouTube, and found a complete recording of a concert performance of the Bach St Matthew Passion conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.

I hooked my Macbook up to my hifi & sat entranced for the full two and three quarter hours. The St Matthew is one of the wonders of music, and Herreweghe is a supreme Bach conductor. Watching it all the way through, with only my Gospel text by my side (and not really needing that - it's a very clear performance) was heartrendingly moving. There are moments when a very familiar chorus or aria sweeps in to play, and the context adds layer upon layer of power and emotion.

The tenor aria, Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen, was such a moment for me. Peter has promised to defend Jesus to the end, Jesus has asked the disciples to pray with him, and in a moment he will beg for the cup of suffering to pass. "I would beside my Lord be watching," sings the tenor, the choir commenting that it is our sins that will fall asleep. Not so. We know the story. We feel the bitter irony, and see what is to come.

Then the beauty of the counter tenor aria Erbame Dich  - Have Mercy - an achingly glorious piece of music, but one that comes shot with pain as it reflects on the betrayal Peter pours upon Jesus so lightly before the cock crows. The harshest failure of friendship; the most beautiful music. Stunning.

I let the music do its work. I let my heart be worked on and touched and opened and broken. From the opening invitation to come and see, to the closing invocation of tears of grief, I sat and watched and listened and felt the glory, the wonder, the pain, the sheer magic of this piece and of the Truth it reveals.

Then I dried my eyes and went to church to continue in worship.

A Good Friday.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


And so the Spring arrives. Holy Week brings in the promise of New Life.

(Though, honestly, it feels like we are stuck in winter-without-Christmas, and Aslan is nowhere to be found.)

Genuinely my bike is frozen to the ground. B-icicles drip off it. Every morning, I conduct my new Spring routine. I open the window shutters and say -
"Oh look, it's snowing."

I'm thinking of moving somewhere milder. Like Canada.

I love the snow, but on the whole, I love it in winter. I didn't expect to be snowed in on March 23rd when I booked a ticket to the St John Passion in York. I missed carols there at Christmas because of the weather; it never occurred to me that Easter would be worse!

That's wrong, of course.

It's not Easter that's worse, just this wretched weather. And the other day, driving up from the south coast I did play the whole of Bach's St John in the car and revelled in its majesty and glory and wonder.

There is a power in hearing the whole story in one sitting, not simply taking a few verses at a time. I'd love to do a modern Passion - to have music and Scripture readings and poetry that took a couple of hours, but led us through the emotions and helped us reflect and feel and hear and left us bewildered and wrung out and in awe.

There. A project for next year. Or for somewhere else.

And though the snow continues to fall, there are rays of sunshine slipping into my mind because I am speaking on Sunday morning, and leading the service in Calverley, and I am beginning to feel the joy of Easter grip me through the remorseless ice of this very long winter.

Truth will out. Sun will rise. Complaints will cease and joy will flow because (hush - it's too soon - but it's unbearably true - ) He is Risen.

We all lose. We all feel the ice and the cold. We all know it.

And yet every year, this week, these days, and the Sunday at the end of it tower over us to declare -

We all win. Because Christ is triumphant. And because Christ is triumphant, so are we. Break the glass upon the pond, smash the stone that stands over the grave, knit together the broken hearts and warm the frozen, despairing hands. Why look for the living amongst the dead?

He is Risen.

(Maybe Canada can wait.)

Saturday, March 23, 2013


I was in Kent Thursday afternoon, but not (alas) in Canterbury. So I am watching the installation of the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury a day late.

It's a terrifically Anglican event.

The liturgy, the colours, the music, the way the congregation is entering into it with such restraint - glorious.

And then Justin.

Unlike Rowan, whose bearing and voice poured poetry upon us in words we often admired without full comprehension, Justin finds the more direct route. To be fair, Rowan's Celtic heart wasn't English anyway. Justin's prose is more prosaic, but his message comes with a savage directness: no Christ, no point.

Really, I'm sure that's what he just said.

We can't be fully human without Jesus, and society built without him therefore will fail. So - take courage and respond to the One who says - fear not, it is I.

It's OK to fail; Jesus' love is stronger than failure. Fear stops us being human - Jesus' love conquers that.  This was gloriously direct stuff. Of all that happened (and I am including the obligatory African drumming) this was the least expected moment. It seems our new Archbishop has been watching the Queen's "How To Evangelise The Nation" videos which she has been sneaking out for a couple of Christmasses now...

So it's slightly churlish of me to pick a fight so early in #ABC105's tenure, but he allowed a mis-step on the radio earlier in the day. It was, I hope, simply a mis-step.

Pressed (inevitably) on his attitude to the gay question, he spoke warmly of the depth of some gay relationships he knows - and then added that these things were not the same as heterosexual relationships and shouldn't be confused. He went on to say something of the order of, equality is problematic, because not everything is equal. Some things are different and we should rejoice in complimentarity.

This for me was the mis-step.

I think I am becoming a Justin fan. So forgive me for picking this up. Equality & Complimentarity are not alternative qualities. Indeed, when they are allowed to be presented as such, we are always going to hit problems. In terms of gender issues, I think that way of looking at life pretty much went out with the Ark. In employment law now - and in most church life too! - we accept and enjoy differences between men and women. But only in the context of making all equal.

Which of these statements is unacceptable:
* A woman's place is in the wrong.
* A woman's place is in the kitchen.
* A woman's place is in the boardroom, but on less pay than her less talented male colleague.
Answer - all of them, without exception. Obviously!

Yet when women enter leadership they often do so in a very different way to men. Stereotypes exist because there is within them some truth. Those differences are absolutely fine to work through - even enjoy - but only when we have got rid of the inequalities of the insults above and ensured prejudice and sexism have been dealt with.

So too with sexuality issues. Gay people and straight are not the same - that's fair, though (again) we must be careful of stereotypes. But 'difference' only works as a concept in public life if underlying that is a sense of equality. Otherwise, it almost inevitably leads to prejudice and disadvantage. I would very fairly say that I have often been made to feel different, and I'm talking about life in the Church here; I have not often felt equal. A concept of complimentarity without equality can be scary. The church needs to be a place that banishes such fear, as Justin said in his installation sermon, because Jesus is with us, arms stretched out, saying - I'm here, so it's OK. He loves everyone. He makes us equal. Equally loved. Equally human. Different in a hundred ways, but these things must always go together.

Equality is a fundamentally Christian concern. The only people who don't think so are those who already have enough of it.

And Christians should never have enough of it. We should always want to ensure that more and more people are more and more equal. People that we find hard. Just because they are people. Jews & Gentiles. Slave & free. Sinners and saints.

The mistake is to think that when we say people are Equal we say they have no needs, no cause to turn to Christ. That's a confusion: if everyone is equal, everyone stands on a level playing field before Calvary, the cross towering over all of us in exactly the same way. And on it - one Lord, one Judge, one Saviour.

We may be different. But we are equal there. These are not antithetical ideas, and the real dignity of people often depends upon us so melding these concepts together now that come the Day when we stand together before Christ,  we will do so as good and faithful servants surrounded by a cloud of other good and faithful witnesses.

Enough - I said earlier that I think I am a fan of #ABC105 & I meant it.

As Justin said, it's OK to fail. The service, the sermon - huge success; the radio interview - perhaps less so. An archbishop gets a honeymoon period where no-one notices the mis-steps for a while. Mercifully! We should pray that the man who is so impressive in the grand moments & the prepared set-pieces becomes equally brilliant at the off-the-cuff reply.

Equally brilliant. In a different setting...

Thursday, March 07, 2013

to the wonder

Always a sucker for a movie with Ben Affleck in it, I took my self off to see Terence Malick's latest, To the Wonder.

Argo it is not. If you need to read a review of this movie that loved it, stop now. I hated a lot of it - and then had my whole perspective changed at the end. But I'm going to take you on that journey, so be prepared to sit with me as I work through that process. And don't say I didn't warn you...

Basically, I wondered for a while if TM had maybe been ill during the shoot; had he handed over responsibility for camerawork to his 19 year old media studies student? The opening 20 minutes resembled nothing so much as the kind of thing I used to do on Windows Movie Maker, when I'd put in stills and add "zoom in", then "zoom out", then "pan left", then "pan right". Only it happens faster here & with less subtelty than I'd have managed.

Presumably the dialogue the cast improvised was so mind-numbingly awful that most of it was unuseable. No worries. Plan B. TM was prepared to use the Gorecki-plus-voice-over technique. Only, that didn't work - still gut-wrenchingly twee. So it gets left in French for most of the time, apart from when it's in Spanish (in the sections filmed in the US,obviously) with subtitles - and hey presto, it's still appalling but passes for Art House now. (You'll understand, Ben has very little to say.)

As for how the cast act on screen:
Olga Kurylenko looks constantly confused. Which, I think, is honest. At times, she gives up and twirls around. This may be desperation; it ensures that Ben does what Ben does best - assume the wooden position. Rachel MacAdams has no clue what she is there for. We share in this. Every now and then there's a bit of rabbit-in-headlamps in her eyes that looks frighteningly real. And then there's Javier Bardem, who has apparently walked in from a different film. Well - until the end. I'll come back to this. It turns out he's important.

For a while I sat there, unable to work out what I was watching. Was it some kind of silent movie? But in colour, and with all the nuance removed?

Maybe it was like opera, but without any singing?

For a while, I coped by deciding that this was it. Olga & Ben, & then Rachel & Ben, take up static poses, emoting vaguely in different directions, scarcely touching but evidently representing love. In some way.

And then they are in a field of Bison (seriously). On a car. It's not just opera - it's Wagner.

From nowhere and with no link there's a shot of turtles swimming. Why? Because we are making a deep point, I guess. Really, I'm not making this up. Unless my migraine meds were playing up, it actually happenes. I think TM's media student must have been editing at this point as well as adding zoom.

And that student has a fascination with Ben's midriff. His belt gets as much screen time as his face. I'm just saying.

There was a sub-plot connected with environmental abuse. It wandered in. It wandered out.


Only I have to add, to be totally fair, that there were odd things that nagged away at me. I mean, I almost walked out at several points, but stayed in part because it's always embarrassing to leave and mostly because -
I stayed because this is, I think, the best representation of America I've ever seen in the cinema. The most honest representation. By which I mean that the America you see here is the America you see when you go there. The central home was furnished by Target, not Pottery Barn. Even in 'gritty' films, poor homes take on a certain sheen. Here an ordinary home looked - ordinary. No frills. Ben's car looked like it actually belonged to someone. You could feel the tarmac on the roads, the emptiness of the food. There was an airport lounge - goodness, anyone who knows the US knows that The Terminal or Catch Me if You Can are totally fictional. The reality of airports in the US is a depressing smell & fat people with no fashion sense & terrible footwear. Here was a real airport! Godforsaken place.

And Javier Bardem, wandered through his own sweet movie, in which he visited prisoners, sick people, the lonely, the abandonned, and gave them a touch of God when he himself spoke of not being able to feel God. What was this about?

Well, right at the very end, suddenly, it was Javier who unlocked everything for me. Speaking in Spanish, he gives a remarkable version of the prayer of St Patrick - "Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me". Suddenly, it struck me that the whole film had been the most amazing visual homage to Roman Catholic sprituality.

I'm no Roman. But I appreciate what this brings, and the view of God it gives - and that this movie's version of it was superb. There was a truth, a reality, a sight of life without artifice here that was remarkable. There was sensuality and brutality. There was a longing for love, and a fear of loss. There was a woman who wanted to throw herself on God, and others who cared not at all. Problems do wander in and out of life. There are few resolutions. Everything is very real, with poor fashion sense and bad footwear. And through it all, we need a godly figure who is there for everyone, but especially the poor who might seek Christ in everything.

To the Wonder is not a film I want to see again. But it is an experience that has stayed with me, and an insight into life that has gone surprisingly deep.

If you go - stay till the end.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

agreement is overrated

Earlier this week I had the great good fortune to catch up with an old friend of mine, and to meet a more recent friend of his over supper.

Tory Baucum, Rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and I have been friends for almost a quarter of a century - since he was a curate in Little Rock Arkansas, and I was about to start training for ordination in Oxford. We met by chance, as happens with the best friendships. Though 'chance' may, of course, have had some divine help; either way, I'll take it.

It was Tory who introduced me to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, and thereby to many others who have become important to me. The years have had their generosity and taken their toll; I have seen the recent days of Tory's work and felt with him the pain he has had to work through.

Tory, of course, pastors one of those churches that pulled out of The Episcopal Church, the US arm of the Anglican Communion, after the consecration of Gene Robinson a decade ago. It wasn't an act done over a single moment. There was a lot of history. But the issue of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the realm of sexuality remains a key issue for Truro and the other Anglican churches that made the same decision at the same time.

Regular readers will know that whilst I share Tory's absolute evangelical commitment to Biblical truth, I disagree with the outworking of it here. But I have absolutely stood by him through these years. In heart and prayer and emotionally. He is a godly man of peace with a passion for relationship (which is always at the heart of my Christian understanding) and a desire to seek the greater truths of the Biblical witness. He is someone who is not afraid to stand up and speak graciously when all around call upon him to denounce people; and he is my friend.

I visited him and Elizabeth and the family (for the first time in a while) back in October when I was in DC. Though I was working over there, I had some time on a Sunday, and had the great pleasure of worshipping at Truro. Tory told me of his friendship with the Episcopalian bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, and the surprising blessing that had come from meeting with the man at the head of a diocese at war with his own parish.

Tory & Shannon were in Coventry this week, speaking at a conference on Faith in Conflict organised by new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. There's an article in this week's Church Times about them, and here is a link to the audio of their event. If you can spare an hour, stop and listen. It is very much worth it, to hear two men speak of grace in the midst of distress, and how God can change hearts. In the midst of fear, and lawsuits, and enmity, a friendship has been born. Remarkable. And it is a simple truth that leaders set the tone for their people; it may take a long time for full resolution, but the way people pray together across hurt is a witness to God's redeeming love and the reality of forgiveness.

Before he flew over here, Tory called me - could I find time to see him, he'd love me to meet Shannon. Of course, I replied that would love to do so. And we found a time that worked.

I never cease to be amazed at Tory. He gets it in the neck from so many people - he lives in a place where the church is in crisis. Hurting badly. Many people (mostly in other places - his congregation seem remarkably kind) demand he fight the wicked Episcopalians. And he simply loves, disagrees, talks, prays with, engages as the Lord leads him. It's a godly thing and a costly one. Shannon too acts out a prophetic role: not lording it over Tory or taking the role of the power figure (as, in stereotype, one might imagine a bishop to act) but speaking to his own Diocese of their friendship - and how it has changed him. This is humility. This is godliness.

It was a great pleasure to meet Shannon, to discover a shared love of music, a passion for Anglicanism built on the principles of the Elizabethan settlement, and to talk over many other things.

Shannon says in the audio from the Coventry conference: "Agreement is overrated". Unity is not uniformity. We are not all called to be the same. As Christians, sometimes the real delight comes in meeting people in whom we see Christ, but who are quite different to us in all sorts of ways. We disagree - perhaps on how we worship or how we talk about Jesus to others or in what we wear to church. Or in some of the wider and, for now, deeper issues of faith.

But there is a bedrock. Our forefathers were very wise when they gave us the Catholic Creeds. Just the core things. Mostly about Jesus. If we share these things - as Tory says - "these things are not nothing". Indeed, these things are an awful lot. These things bind us together and make us family. In the family, there are cousins and grandparents, and a crazy uncle we'd rather keep on the porch, but who belongs inside with us. That's the Elizabethan Settlement, right there. The Church is a big house, with many rooms and lots of room. And love and kindness matter.

And the water of baptism is at the door, the outward sign that we have all been welcomed in, that we have made promises and received grace. It is an outward and visible sign of the cleansing we receive in our hearts by the blood of Christ which is the seal and reality of our redemption - even when we begin to doubt each other, and the validity of the words and signs we see in each other's lives. The blood is thicker than the water, the reality deeper than the sign.

So when the outward is a bit shaky, when churches and Christians fight and argue and split and spit and tussle, and love seems to have left the building, this does not negate inner truth. For God will find a way to restore his redemptive normality. He will find people like Shannon and Tory, who are not papering over cracks but recovering the essentials for the rest of us.

We must bless people like these two men. And pray for them.