Sunday, 30 December 2012

A discomforting fairy tale at Christmas

I went to the Ballet recently - a post Christmas treat.

It was Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, an adaptation which brings to completion his reworking of all three of Tchaikovsky's great ballets (Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty).

He has admitted that Sleeping Beauty was the hardest to adapt
owing to its less than exciting plot line and lack of dramatic tension between the two lovers, i.e. in the original tale they don't meet until the Prince discovers the castle behind the overgrown brambles and happens upon the sleeping princess, waking her with a kiss. Can you fall in love with someone you have never communicated with?

The evil Caradoc leads Princess Aurora towards a devilish wedding 
To add spice, therefore, Bourne's Sleeping Beauty falls in love with her Royal Gamekeeper before being overcome by the 100 year slumber, giving her a primary reason to wake up. Her lover must then be immortalized in order to last out the 100 years too (a vampiric 'kiss' from the male 'Lilac fairy' achieves this).

To further increase the tension, the pricking of the royal finger is brought about not by a spindle but by the tempting advances of another, much more sinister suitor, in the person of Caradoc, the evil son of the original dark fairy. Princess Aurora loves the Gamekeeper, but this new raven haired man is a smooth, sophisticated, intoxicating tempter. It is the thorn from his black rose which causes her to sleep and it is he who first awakens her and leads her terrifyingly towards a 'wedding'/sacrifice at his murderous hands before the happier denouement with the Gamekeeper eventually takes place. As a young, inexperienced girl on the threshold of womanhood she faces the Adam and Eve-like dichotomy of good and evil and the apparent excitement of the forbidden.

Re-writing stories is what artists do, whether ballet, Shakespeare or film adaptations. We want the original truth to survive, of course - the Princess must be essentially good and her successful suitor a man of noble heart. There must be good and evil and good must triumph eventually. The details - mood, atmosphere and style, however - are up for grabs.

And the style is decidedly Gothic. Crimson and black roses; a discomforting, sensuous pas de deux with a bad man and a sleeping girl; a mock wedding with hints of S&M; blindfolds (they're all asleep you see...) it's all going on...

It's about those ancient tropes of fairy tales whose power lies in the resonances within our subconscious. A Christening - every parent has dreams for their baby; how will she turn out? Our progeny carry 'the hopes and fears of all the years'. Will life be blessed or cursed? Our first parents were 'pricked' with the bite from an apple; they did not die; they 'slept' outside the garden of life until Jesus Christ the Apple Tree bought the way back.

Sleeping Beauty, then; a tale of coming of age; romance, sex (Chaucer employed that reference  to 'pricking' widely and gleefully); awareness (you can 'slumber' in more ways than one, as Jesus knew); magic; healing; awakening; resurrection.

There's nothing as bodily in all the arts, as dance. For good or ill you remember your humanity when you watch dance. Every emotion is communicated through the body; there's no hiding. We are for ever embodied, subconscious and all. And we are shaped and defined by the truths of our ancient shared stories. Re-telling them with freshness and provocation is an art rightly to be celebrated.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Language rich enough to eat

We're on number five of seven of the Advent Antiphons in our stately march (aka mad rush) through the final days of Advent before Christmas.

The 'O Antiphons' developed in the early church as sung prayers before and after Mary's hymn, the Magnificat. They refer to different names of Jesus from the Old Testament Wisdom and prophetic books.

And they do sing. Even if you don't know any Latin, it's like having swallowed a slug of something rich and fulfilling that will last you throughout the sometimes tiring preparation for Christmas. They're a veritable feast of words and allusions.

O Sapientia: 17 December.

Sapientia - wisdom. The feminine divine?
The word drips juice. Sap. 
'Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dew fall on the first grass...' She was there in the beginning.

O Adonai: 18 December

Adonai - Lord. 
Beautiful One. Christ identified as God Almighty. Can it be any clearer than that?

O Radix Jesse: 19 December
Root of Jesse.
Like the male version of Cinderella: 'Are these all the sons you have?'
'Great David's greater son'.
God's only son.
Radix: root. Radishes. Radical.

O Clavis David: 20 December

Clavis: key.
The key which opens and no one can shut.
The key which locks and no one can open.
Be on the right side of that key then.

O Oriens: 21 December

Morning Star: 
'O Morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.'
(I thought the morning star was Venus, hanging there in the dewy mist as the day breaks....?
Or it there some biblical image I've missed?)

O Rex Gentium: 22 December

King of the people.
'God rest ye merry, Gentium...'

O Emmanuel: 23 December

Know this one. God with us.
'O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.'

I think of the O Antiphons like an Advent plum pudding - rich and full of goodness; ancient and long lasting. A wonderful mixture of things which fill and nourish in ways supermarket Christmas food adverts cannot compete with.

Happy munching.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Blues at Advent.

I had a 'moment' this week. 

It's Advent and I like to play Advent hymns on the piano at home. However, as I sat down innocently one evening, the words 'Oh don't play any more hymns PLEASE' brought me up short. 'Can't you play Blues or something?' was the plea. So I thought: is it possible to get too religious?

Look around the house and you will see religious books, religious pictures on the wall (of my study at least), religious hymn books, worship music strewn across the floor and not a small number of tea lights. Not that tea lights are a sign of being religious necessarily but...

I'm not sure how it happened but over the last seven years I seem to have read an awful lot of religious books (Trinity, church history, pastoral theology, the sacraments, mission and evangelism, preaching, spirituality, theological reflection, leadership) and listened to a lot of religious music (Taize, Iona, New Wine, choral). On the other hand, novels, poetry and all sorts of other creative experiences have probably suffered. At the risk of separating sacred and secular, which is always a bad idea, I think I just want to live a little more...

If creativity is stifled I'll become a bore and worse than that, my spirituality will probably suffer too. 

So we didn't have Advent hymns this week. Instead I played along to All Blues from Kind of Blue by the legendary Miles Davis; discovered it was Harry Nilsson, not The Beautiful South who first sang Everybody's Talkin' and went out with my camera into the very cold and frosty Advent countryside. 

Which didn't make me feel blue at all. 

On the contrary.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The REAL A - Z of Ministry in the Church of England.

There may be a common misconception that Anglican priests spend a lot of time being holy and pious, praying and reading the bible and the Prayer Book.
The real truth is revealed in this A - Z of real, actual day to day preoccupations; things which irritate, preoccupy, keep us busy and define the happy days of ministry in the real world. Mostly they are things nobody talked about at theological college.

A is for.......... Acronyms.
Like any organisation, there's plenty of jargon. You could in theory spend the morning on IME (Initial Ministerial Training) working on your MDF (Ministry Development Folder); attend your MDG (Ministry Development Group) in the afternoon and go onto an evening governors meeting at the local C of E school where you will need to know the difference between an SEF (School Evaluation Form), an SDP (School Development Plan) and an RAP (Raising Achievement Plan).

B is for..........Bat droppings. 
Bats are a protected species in and around many ancient churches. They sit up in the roof. Which means the priest must protect the Chalice after filling it up with Communion wine, or the consequences could be liturgically complicated, not to mention unhygienic  Very important, that little cardboard square covered in white linen (the pall).

C is for..........Coffee.
You will consume vast quantities of it. You will long for it when it's unavailable and drink too much when you don't need it. Some will be delicious, some will be undrinkable, but you must plough on regardless as it's part of the etiquette of pastoral visits. 'Come in...would you like a coffee?' (Thinks: that'll be my 4th this morning...) 'Yes, that'd be lovely, thank you!'

D is for..........Driving.

Multi parish ministry is so spread out these days you may find you're spending quite a lot of time in the car. This can be an opportunity for prayerful reflection, or an opportunity to pick up two speeding tickets, one on the way to an important church meeting and one on the way back, for instance.

E is for.......... Enervating meetings.

Obviously we don't have any in this parish, but I have endured my fair share in other ministry contexts. Random thoughts during these times have included: 'What a strange green lampshade';  'Is that clock actually working?' and 'Will I be home in time for Waterloo Road?'

F is for..........Freezing cold.
A burial in the snow; a February 8 o'clock Communion; being able to see your breath as you preach; fingers too cold to pluck guitar strings. We praise God heartily for heating that works; otherwise we soldier on with many jumpers. I once wore a green woolly hat during the Eucharist. It was Ordinary Time.

G is for........Gaps.
Gaps in perception - your perception of 'success' and what you can in reality achieve; gaps in the perception others have of you, and what they think you can achieve; gaps in rotas; gaps in the night when you can't sleep; gaps into which you think you can squeeze your car when you're late for a meeting. I suppose it's life and death and all that mess in between: there are just a lot of gaps.

H is for..........Heating.
If you have some that works and doesn't cost equivalent to the GDP of a small country, you are blessed beyond compare. Even then, someone will need to think about when it comes on, how long it stays on, how efficient it is, how often it's checked, how you read the meters, who reads them and what to do if the electricity company overcharge you by 1000%.

I is for..........Ignorance.

There are the things you know you don't know which you can ask about and which others will kindly tell you about. Then there are the things you know you don't know but no one else has a clue about either. And then there are the things you don't know you don't know which everyone else does know, but is too embarrassed to point out to you. This last category is the one to worry about. Except you don't know about it. Proving, after all, that ignorance is bliss.

J is for..........Juggling.
I guess everyone who works does it, but working from home makes it interesting. And combining ministry and motherhood makes it even more interesting. It occasionally feel like rising river levels - bits of work seeping into other areas that are usually boundaried. On the plus side I can prepare sermons with a background of drum practice; I know exactly how many minutes it takes to drive from the Crematorium to the school bus stop and evening meetings at least get you out of onerous maths homework duties.

K is for..........Keys.
It goes like this: you need something from the church safe. You find the car keys, go out of the house, lock the house, unlock the car and get in. Then you remember you haven't got the church keys. You unlock the house, find the church keys, relock the house and drive to the church. Once there you lock the car, unlock the padlock to the porch, and the main church door, open the safe door with a key and a metal lever carefully hidden in special designated place, pick up the item, relock the safe, hide the metal lever, relock the main door, padlock the porch, find your car keys and drive home, lock the car and let yourself in with the house key. 
You can see that with all these variables the potential for something to get lost/go wrong is quite substantial.

L is for..........Laminating.
Once you start it's very addictive. It makes your assembly visual aids and church posters look vaguely professional. If they're bound for outdoors, however, laminating posters only protects them from the water ingress if you learn the subtle art of trimming the poster to exactly 1cm smaller than the laminating pouch and only putting the drawing pins through the edges that do not touch the paper. Otherwise within two days your poster will become a soggy, pulpy mess no one can read.

M is for..........Muscles.
You need them for moving the following objects: pianos; photocopiers; crates of wine; piles of hymn books; Curate's Training files and large babies presented for baptism.

N is for..........Noticeboards.
They are specifically designed not to admit any drawing pins except some kind of industrial strength variety that you would need to blast in with a power tool. Once in they can never be removed. Prepare for chipped fingernails.

O is for..........Onions.
It's a strange thing but the more you think about it, every ministry situation is like an onion with many layers. The more you peel back, the more you see. And sometimes it will make you cry.

P is for..........Paperwork.
I thought I had a lot of files until I became a Curate. Even the files I do have are now full to bursting and most weeks I go out to buy some more. The lever arches usually collapse after a few weeks and I shove everything into a drawer with a fancy label on it. I recently received an email with 14 attachments. I couldn't bring myself to print them out.

Q is for..........Quiet moments.

These occur when you have lost your voice; when someone's just said something in a meeting that's gone down very badly, and when you're reminded in the middle of a bad day that the clouds are still skimming the sky and the Church of England is still standing.

R is for..........Revising.
Revising your theology in the face of life; revising ministry expectations in the face of illness, retirement and relocation; revising the service mentally when a couple of children turn up unexpectedly (or are unexpectedly absent). You will always be revising.

S is for..........Sugar.
If you're out and about a lot you can never tell if you're going to be offered food mid morning. You may need that energy to get you through the next 3 hours before you get home to the kitchen. And so I find myself in an endless internal debate about whether to ask for sugar in coffee or not. If yes, AND a biscuit appears you are going to be over sweetened; if nothing appears AND there's no sugar, you're going to go under. Best to be over than under I find.

T is for..........Treats.
You need things to look forward to. Chocolate, obviously; a solitary coffee shop hour; dropping off on the sofa in the middle of the day whilst watching Waterloo Road on iplayer. Everyone needs something.

U is for..........Underestimating.
Morning Prayer, a planning meeting, a mid-morning bible study, bring and share lunch, two hours admin and two pastoral visits before an evening governors meeting is likely to be too much to pack into one 'day'. Not only do we underestimate the amount of time it will take up but also the amount of energy. You are not a super-being.

V is for..........Voices.

Think of it from the point of view of the congregation. If it's squeaky  whiney, monotone, irritable, shouty, too high, too low or too sibilant, life is going to be miserable for everyone. Make yours interesting, mellifluous, dynamic and audible.
If you yourself are hearing voices, seek professional help.

W is for..........Worrying.

Given our Lord said don't do it, it's extraordinary how much time is spent on this. I think I speak for most fellow clergy. Or maybe not...? 
Now that's a worrying thought...

X is for..........Xtreme temperatures.
It will be at least 25 degrees in the local Care Home, with all windows shut. The churchyard can reach minus 8 for a burial in winter. Employ layers.

Y is for..........Yo-Yo-ing.

Only you might know the really sad news just received about someone in the church, but meanwhile you put on a brave face and turn up for the primary school Carol concert. You could do a funeral visit and a baptism visit in the same evening, in theory. Talk about up and down emotions.

Z is for..........Zzzzz
Whatever you do, just get as much as possible as often as possible.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent: a never-ending story

1 Thessalonians 3:9-end
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 

Luke 21: 25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 

A good story always begins with ‘Once upon a time’ and today the church’s story begins all over again with the first Sunday in Advent.

It is good to tell stories. Humans have done so down millennia to remind themselves of who they are, where they come from and where they’re going.

And the story of the church is the same.

Or perhaps we should say ‘the story of the kingdom’, because the origin, power and end point of the story is God and God’s everlasting kingdom, in which we have a part to play.

So let’s tell the story again.

Once there was a garden, planted east of Eden.

In it the Lord God placed a man and a woman as co-workers to till the soil and walk in fellowship with him and with one another. They were to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, except the fruit of the tree of good and evil. To enjoy the fruits of this tree was to choose to be god.

The heavenly host looked on in anticipation. Their purpose and meaning was to glorify and praise the King of Heaven for ever.

But they were sentient beings with the choice to praise, or not to praise.

Among them was one who wished for autonomy. In other words he wished to be his own god. He fell from heaven, bringing down a third of the host with him, like stars falling to earth.

He took the form of a serpent, the craftiest of beasts and came to the woman in the garden.

‘Did God really say…?’

And so the woman and the man chose to disobey. They said ‘we know better than the God who made us’.

As for the pattern of evil brought in by the serpent, God said ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will bruise his heel.’

The sons and daughters of the first man and the first woman populated the earth.

They all had the same choice: the way of fellowship with God or the way of autonomy.

There was an increase of evil; a flood; a new beginning; the choosing of the nations and the special call of God’s people, through the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Leah and Rachel built up the House of Israel with twelve sons who became a nation.

But famine brought Jacob's sons to Egypt where they lived and multiplied; God’s people in an alien culture, until they were oppressed by Pharaoh.

God called Moses to lead them out to the Promised Land and to give them his holy laws under which to live, caring for the widow and the alien in their midst.

Judges gave way to Kings. King David was promised a faithful descendent who would rule over his people for ever.

But God’s people did not allow God to be King amongst them. Unfaithfulness led to oppression by foreign powers as they brought God’s judgment upon themselves time and time again.

But there was always the hope of something better to come; The hint of an everlasting kingdom.

There would be a leader who would call God’s people back to faithfulness; the Son of Man who leads his children like a shepherd leads the sheep.

But there would be judgment too: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.

The Prophets were the ones to call the people back to faithfulness; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; their words sometimes falling on deaf ears, sometimes on willing. Kings came and went, good and evil growing together until the harvest.

When evil predominated, God’s people went into Exile. ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.’ ‘How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!’

Daniel prayed. Nehemiah acted. Ezra taught the law. God was on the move once more. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt; the exiles returned. Prophets foretold the birth of a baby, born in the city of Bethlehem, where Ruth had brought her longed for son into the world.

‘Everything works together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’.

‘Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’’.

And yet that pattern of good and evil…. ‘Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son….who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.’

Jesus ‘went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden…Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place…(he) brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came with lanterns and torches and weapons…’

Why didn't you arrest me in the Temple? I was there every day. But this is your moment, the time when the power of darkness reigns."

Zechariah told us this: ‘They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a first born son.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

‘And I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.’

Finally the way was opened for us to be reconciled directly with our Maker. The kingdom was breaking in and continues to this day. The kingdom of God is inside you. The kingdom of God is here and yet still to come.

We have heard the story a thousand times. It is a story in progress. We each have a place in the story. How did you find your place?

Who first told you the story?

Are you living the story?

How will the story play out in this place where we live?

Who else will become part of the story through the witness of us as church?

This Advent Sunday we anticipate the end of the story – the foretelling of a kingdom brought in by judgement and mercy; ‘the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ’.

The story of our lives now, connects with the story of the kingdom.

This world is not our home: we look to a home that is to come.

Meanwhile we live with joy as children of the kingdom, proclaiming his death and resurrection every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, until he comes again.