Saturday, 26 January 2013

A holy trinity of muses

The Saturday Times magazine held a nice surprise this week in the shape of an extract from the forthcoming autobiography of singer songwriter, Tracey Thorn, soloist and one half of the 80s group, Everything But the Girl.

I suppose we all imagine personal connections with our heroes - Joni Mitchell, for instance, gave me permission to be thoroughly miserable for no apparent reason, which was cool when I was an 18 year old undergraduate, in 1983. Her songs became the continuous backdrop to my university life, mixed in with only two other significant musical influences: Suzanne Vega and Tracey Thorn. There wasn't a boyfriend-related experience that wasn't eventually in some way woven into the compulsive songs of this 'holy trinity' of female musical muses.

I had most in common with Tracey Thorn - she was also reading English and graduated two years before me, in 1984, with a First (I  cannot claim this last distinction, I hasten to add). In that same year, she and partner, Ben Watt (together Everything But the Girl) released their first album, Eden, given me by Pete, former Catholic turned fundamentalist evangelical Christian, and a moderately good painter. He attempted to paint me when I turned 20, in the garden of our halls of residence, but he was more of a starter than a completer, and it remained a masterpiece in the making. Nice thought though, and I still have that cassette tape. Despite being alert to the hippest music, there was no spark of romance there.

Moving on, it was former boyfriend, Graham (who sadly became 'person with whom I cannot now string one coherent sentence together') who first alerted me to the fact that his idol, Paul Weller, had procured the voice of Tracey Thorn for a Style Council track called The Paris Match, a soporific jazz number to which Thorn's smoky vocal is entirely fitted, and which contains the wonderful lines: 

'I'm only sad in a natural way
and I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
the gift you gave was desire
the match that started my fire.'

As the fire went out from successive relationships, and burst out in others, I discovered her solo album: A Distant Shore, which had been released in 1982. Every song confirmed, of course, that I was right to be regularly confused over MEN, and helped me to discover the moody guitar chords with with to express my confusion. The album is minimalist, honest and haunting. She's young but has lived, is experiencing fame, but still feeling she's a 'small town girl'*, like I was (without the fame, obviously).

* title of first, and possibly best, track on the album.

I was also writing songs at the time, mostly in minors (or major 7ths, which are equally as miserable) and it did not come as a surprise to discover that one of my A major 7 creations, of which I was quite proud, was in effect an almost chord by chord re-working of Femme Fatale, which I used to sing a lot, proving that it is only the really gifted who are original ('you're written in her book/ you're number 37, have a look').

I went to see Everything But the Girl in 1984 - Reading University Student Union. In my fervour, I persuaded my best friend to come, but being in a sweaty, crowded gig did not help her agoraphobia one bit. In an attempt to repay her enormous effort, I went on a CND march in central London in her stead. My sense of self importance on that occasion was largely undimmed by my not having the faintest idea what CND stood for. 

Always the connoisseur's choice, Everything But the Girl eventually saw success on a large scale with the Todd Terry Remix, Missing, which went to number 2 in the US and had massive airplay all over Europe in 1995 and which I still think is dead good.

And Tracey became a mother, eventually choosing this role over a lucrative offer for EBTG to support U2 on their US stadium tour in 1997. The 90s was my baby phase too; I even sold my guitar to make room for baby paraphernalia in our small terraced house. I regretted it afterwards for a long time.

I admit that out of Mitchell, Vega and Thorn, Tracey is possible the lesser member of my holy trinity of muses, but the one with whom I like to imagine the most personal and abiding connection, for all the reasons above. 

Her book Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to Be a Pop Star is out on February 7th, 2013.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

On the strong stuff

Epiphany 3.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 1 Corinthians 12.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ John 2.

Probably the most defining characteristic of the Christian view of God, is that it is Trinitarian.
It’s hard to picture God, and maybe we shouldn't try, but someone has said that different Christians relate to different members of the Holy Trinity.
Some warm to the idea of the Father, a perfect Father figure.
Some to the Son; after all, he was a human being and we read about him in the New Testament.
But the Spirit…?
How do you picture the Spirit and how does the Spirit feature in your faith?

The first sermon I ever preached in church, nearly 7 years ago, was on the subject of transformation from 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul writes ‘and we, who with unveiled faces, all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’
‘The Lord..who is the Spirit…’
More about the ill fated sermon in a minute...
The Spirit is intimately connected to Jesus; we say in our Creed that He proceeds from the Father and Son and with the Father and Son, He is worshipped and glorified.’
We think about the Spirit particularly today in our first reading.
And out of the three persons of the Trinity, it is the Spirit who perhaps deals most in our transformation (as far as we can isolate the role of one 'person' of the Godhead, which is not far).

My ‘transformation sermon’, however, got me into a bit of hot water.
Most off-putting cover for a Christian book ever?
It was a congregation of youngish people and I thought the topic ‘Transformation’ might touch a nerve – after all, young people are always trying to transform their lives and embrace the latest thing, whether it is health fads, beauty products, or getting into meditation to soothe the stress of modern life.
So we looked at how meeting with Jesus transforms us from the inside out, which unlike personal attempts at change, makes a lasting, eternal difference.
I found out later that it was a bit too ‘strong’ for some people.
They were actually a bit scared off by the idea of transformation.

I’m not sure what those people thought church, or Jesus Christ was all about.
When he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus meant it to be strong stuff.
That’s the difference between water and wine.
Water is a life giver, of course; but wine is a joy giver.
If we’re not open to change, to transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit as Christians, then what are we here for?

Our first reading from 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of the power and the gifts of the Spirit.
They are ours to use, even us ordinary Christians in this small village.
The gift of healing; the gifts of wisdom or miraculous utterance (aka ‘tongues’); the gift of discernment, the gift of prophetic words.
The gifts given by the Spirit to ordinary Christians like you and me are expressions of our diversity in unity, in Jesus.
We are the body: He is the head.
Not everyone receives the same gifts.
We all complement each other in the body, if we’re functioning well.

Graham Cray, Leader of the Fresh Expressions Team and the Archbishop’s Missioner, writes this about the body of Christians, a body which we celebrate particularly at the beginning of this week of Christian Unity:
‘The church is a living organism with Jesus Christ himself functioning as head. In seeing Jesus as head, we must take seriously the notion that he is not head emeritus. He is not some titular Chairman of the Board, who is given nodding acknowledgement while others run his organization; he is not the retired founder of the firm.’ 

(Discerning Leadership, Grove Book, p. 7).

Jesus is living in his church by the Holy Spirit; if He weren't  we would be just a group of people trying to recall the good old days when he walked the earth, but otherwise going about our lives as though nothing had happened.
As it is, we are a living organism, with Christ as the living Head.

So when Jesus came to turn water into wine, he didn’t stint on transformation.
It was all 6 stone water jars, each containing 20 or 30 gallons, which he transformed into wine.
John’s gospel is probably the gospel with the densest and most pronounced symbolism.
John is saying here in John 2 that the Jewish purification rites, ways by which you could come to a Holy God, are being superseded by something new, something Jesus-oriented.
The heavenly banquet is called to mind – the feasting and celebration at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
The wine of the new covenant is called to mind – made into something even further in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse: ‘drink this in remembrance of me.’
The third day is called to mind: ‘on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee: on the third day he would rise again.
The wine is not any old wine either.
The host of the wedding says ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 

Jesus doesn’t stint.
His purpose is that we live the new life of the Spirit in the here and now, using the gifts he longs to give to the church.
And this will transform us.
I wonder if you have ever asked yourself: ‘what gifts has God given me that I can use in his service?’
Looking round the church, some gifts are obvious: we have musical people; we have people who are especially caring and good at listening; we have people who are bold with God’s words into a situation; we have people with the gift of administration; we have others who are wise; who are good at reading the bible or praying out loud.
If we are in his body, we will have some sort of gift.
If you’re not sure if you’re using your gifts in the church, ask someone who knows you well; ask for opportunities to use your gifts.
That’s the way we build up the church for growth and outreach.

Lastly, why is the wedding at Cana set for this third Sunday in Epiphany?
The clue is in the last verse of the gospel:
‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’
Although the amazing thing about the miracle of the water onto wine was that only a limited number of people seemed to know what had actually gone on.
The host didn’t realize; probably the guests didn’t realize.

Mary knew, and Jesus’ disciples knew, and put their faith in him.
We are supposed to move in the miraculous, but it’s not for show.
It’s so we can point to Jesus and be transformed by his Spirit into the church he wants us to be.
A church of people willing to be transformed, filled with the Spirit and using the gifts he has given, for the good of others, is our prayer and our hope at this Epiphany-tide.
May God give us the new wine of his joy as we pray to be such a church.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Images of maleness

The other day I found myself reflecting on three images of maleness which presented themselves on a day trip to London.

In the first I listened to a well known Christian speaker tell of his journey from a restrictive to an 'open' position on women in church leadership. He pleaded a background in single sex boarding schools and conservative evangelical Christianity, The latter had at least given him a love of the bible and a desire to share his faith with others. But it had brought with it a default position of believing that the New Testament prohibited women from teaching or leading in the church ('I permit not a woman to teach or usurp authority').

A spell of attending to his own experience (of women guiding and teaching him things personally) and a long hard re-look at the context of the New Testament had led him to embrace women's ministry at all levels. He thought male single sex education coupled with a stiff upper lip approach to English life may have contributed to his initial inability to relate to women and imagine collaborative ministry alongside them. How many other men were still dressing up the psychological in the guise of the theological, he wondered. The image from Romans 16, of Paul working alongside his female colleagues in equal ministry, was normative for him now. Ultimately it was a vision of God and of God's Church that lifted us above predominately male images to something truly liberating and empowering for all people. And, lo and behold, it turns out that its first champion was Jesus Christ.

Buoyed up by this vision I headed back to catch my train home and found myself sitting on a crowded commuter train with three business men of a certain age, suits and smart macs, who were reminiscing about their school days at Marlborough; the 'beaks', the Masters, the cricket and the rugby.They recalled a hapless House-master sacked for 'playing' with boys. Such a waste of a career, poor chap. I had my dog collar on. They eyed me suspiciously. 

Sitting quietly behind the garrulous sixty-somethings was a young Franciscan in full brown habit, wearing open toed sandals on a cold January day. He looked steadily out of the window for the length of the journey and I took comfort from his stillness.

Three images of maleness: the egalitarian; the Old School and the man married to Christ. Perhaps it was a good reminder that despite our non-contextual hermeneutics, gendered language and Church's vexed history regarding women, God 'himself' is not a man.

(Thanks to Chris Alcock for the title of this post).

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Epiphanies about Epiphany.

Some seasons of the church are a bit more opaque than others. It's taken me a long time to 'get' Epiphany and I'm still working on it.

19 years ago tomorrow, at Epiphany (6 January 1994), I was in hospital having just given birth to my first born son two days previously. A special somebody visited and brought me a huge box of Lindt chocolates, possibly the best chocolates money can buy. I won't forget that gift in a hurry, and the significance of the journey that person had made to greet our tiny son for the first time.

Since the Epiphany chocolates my understanding of Epiphany has grown into considering the uniqueness of Jesus as revealed through the gifts of the Magi. Gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for burial. I have attempted to procure these things for school assemblies and bought attractive coloured boxes to represent them when it proved too difficult.

When I began to preach regularly I looked into the etymology of the word so I could get my head around it further. 'Epiphany' is from epi=forth and 'phan'=to show: to show forth. At Epiphany we see the mystery of God shown forth through Christ.

Further developments of an Epiphanic nature have seen me reflecting on funerals during this Epiphany: already one down and one to go. Two funerals of very different people, whose stories I tried to see in the light of Epiphany-tide. In one, God had clearly gifted someone and throughout their long life they had given those gifts back to the community in many positive ways. In the other, it was clear that the precious gift of love within marriage brings with it a terrible risk of loss. We can only give our grief back to God, as a gift in return.

Today I have been pondering the significance of Epiphany for the Gentiles, which perhaps brings me finally to the full meaning of Epiphany. This is why the Magi are involved - the ultimate representation of strange and foreign travellers coming before the Jewish Messiah. Christ is for all. How did their journey affect them? And how is my story also to be seen in the light of Epiphany? 

TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi (1927) was the poet's attempt to articulate his own story of conversion, which felt like a birth, but also a death. He had an unhappy first marriage and would go and sit in churches to admire their beauty. In later years his visits began to bring him peace and something akin to spiritual refreshment. In 1926, on a visit to Rome, he knelt before Michelangelo's 'Pieta'
as if acknowledging a higher authority. It was a turning point. His biographer, Peter Ackroyd writes, 'He was aware of what he called 'the void' in all human human affairs - the disorder, meaninglessness and futility which he found in his own experience; it was inexplicable intellectually...and could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith' (1998, p. 160). Eliot's faith grew and he was baptised and confirmed in the Anglo-Catholic church a year later.

Journey of the Magi is anything but a Christmas card cutesy camel trot into Bethlehem. It tells of a hard journey, physically ('A cold coming we had of it') and spiritually. Those strange travellers from the East had expected a normal birth scene - cuddles and smiles and innocence; but what they experienced in the presence of the Christ child felt like a death ('this birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death'). They return to their palaces changed ('no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods'). It's as if Eliot is saying that converting to Christ had changed everything for him.

Epiphany: babies; gifts; birth; death; journeys, stories; realization; change. As a season, its meaning unfolds like a gift being slowly unwrapped, savoured and lived.