Monday, December 29, 2008

Strictly not dancing

Michael and I listened to a fabulous programme on Radio Four on our way down to dad's on Christmas Eve morning.

It was all about the RUSH of life and our perceptions of TIME.

It featured the marvellous sounds of the bells of a clock planned to be in the middle of the desert which are based on something composed by Brian Eno designed to be unique for every day for the next ten thousand years (you can hear a bit of them here) as part of the LONG NOW foundation and some wonderful reflections on the busy rush of our world. The prototype is in London's science museum but if you want to see the real thing, it will take you, as they say themselves, "at least a day to get there" on a kind of pilgrimage. Understanding that it will take time to experience and engage with this clock.

This idea of slowing down life is something which I've really noticed since we moved to Worcestershire away from the Buzz of the South-East commuter belt. I've noticed that time is NOT as rushed here as it was in High Wycombe. I didn't think it was juts me and apparently it has been measured that some places ARE more rushed than others. I think Worcestershire is a much healthier non-rushed society and I love it, I have to say. There were examples of some fascinating endeavours to sow life down... I think taking a tortoise on a lead with you was my favourite!

I shall be keeping an eye on the Long Now Foundation from now on. It wasn't just the programme as a whole that struck me.

There was one chap Tom Hodgkinson on the programme who talked about Puritans and what impact they had on how we perceive time. The Puritans took away all kinds of the festivities that marked and measured times. He said that they stripped away all the joy and insisted that life was hard and getting to heaven a struggle. I think the enlightenment generally rather the Puritans alone is responsible for it really but I agree with the sentiment. What he said that really spoke to me though was this:

"Life Before the Puritans Life was seen as play, you could call it a Dance, and life after the Puritans became a race."
I've been musing over this over the last few days and it is SO TRUE. Life now seems to be a contest not a creative interaction of different creatures moving alongside each other. In all we do we try to do our best yes and to out-do others, to better OURSELVES, to make ourselves the winner. How different would this be if we instead focussed on life as a dance not a race?

Dances and races both use energy but a dance is about beauty and style in each moment. A race is about passing others in speed or height.

Dances and races both involve skill but a dancers skill is for the delight of others while skill in a race is about surpassing the skill of others.

Dances and races both have an ending but a dance flows from start to finish and ends with a satisfying flourish or a calm conclusion whilst a race ends in a burst of energy and exhaustion.

Which would you rather your life was?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sermon 21st December 2008 Advent 4

This is my sermon from last Sunday. I was leading a service of the word in a rather busy team of churches where the clergy where around and about leading yet more carol services in various places!

The readings for the morning were:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
Romans 16:25-27

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:26-38

I decided to focus on the Gospel. Each member of the congregation was given an image of the annunciation (found via google images) before the service started.

So it’s nearly Christmas… but not quite. And we’re taken back this morning, back in time 9 months or so in fact from where we’re about to be to the moment when Mary first learns that she is going to have this child whose birth we will celebrate this week!
As St Paul put it; it’s
“the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed”
That’s a passage we have all heard many times I’m sure. It’s a story we’re familiar with and yet I’m sure we all see it rather differently in our minds. Have a look on your seats (you may have already spotted them!) and you’ll see a few ways that various artists over the years have depicted that moment of annunciation. Now there are some very different styles some traditional some very modern. You may like your image or you may dislike it. Respond to it honestly.
Some have a very tangible ANGEL figure whilst others show something more of a presence or a glow. Some have Mary just sitting quietly in her room, in others she’s looking out the window or in a garden. Or she’s surrounded by flowers or bright colours. In some Mary is very still and quiet and submissive in a prayerlike or meditative pose. In others she is actively engaged in conversation with the angel or perhaps questioning – How can this be?
How would you paint or sculpt this story or make it into a film or a piece of music perhaps or a dance?
There are two elements of this story which I would want to focus on if I were painting it. Two elements which stand out for me as the most important
The first for me is this element of the otherworldly coming into the ordinary.
Why do you think the angel had to say, so very quickly, "Do Not Be Afraid"? There’s an ANGEL right there in front of her. And the Gospel rather coyly describes this as;
“she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”
Now, I work with teenagers and there are not many teenagers I know who would have responded quite so calmly to a supernatural being appearing so suddenly and calling them “favoured one”. It reminds me in a way of that lottery advert they had a few years ago with the giant hand coming down from the sky and pointing at someone with those booming words “IT COULD BE YOU” and I think that’s why this element of the story strikes me. It COULD be any one of us. Mary was no-one particularly illustrious or famous. She was just like one of us until that day. And God sent her this message as her to serve him.
Now I’m not saying it’s going to be that clear for each of us when God calls us to do something. I don’t think there’ll be hundreds of different of classical paintings of the moment that God called one of us to be a teacher, to help at a local charity, to befriend a neighbour or sit with someone who is ill.
The second part of this story which really sparks something in me, is not actually the news that Jesus is to be born. That is an amazing gift to each and every one of us. A gift we may take for granted or be so unable to grasp that we can’t even begin to describe it. No the element that gets me is Mary’s response.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Ok so there’s some initial doubt that she can possibly have a child without there being a physical father. Yet so very quickly she comes back with this YES. This complete submission to God’s will. God calls her and she answers that call.

That’s what I would want to show in a painting. Not just a passive beatified and serene Mary but a Mary saying YES with all her being.

So my painting would be of the otherworldly coming into our world with that call and Mary responding YES to that call.

The reason I’d want to paint that is because I think this story really encapsulates God’s call to each of us. I don’t know what God might be calling you to. I do know that he is. I know that God says to you, as he says to Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you… Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And if that’s true at any time it’s all the more true at Christmas. A future and a hope. That is what we look forward to and we find that future and that hope in listening to God’s call and in answering it as Mary did.
So when the Lord calls. Will you answer as she did
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Saying yes to God

1. When is it hardest for us to say yes to God?
2. What makes Mary able to say it?
3. How can we follow her example?
4. What is one way we can show God's love this Christmas?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Card in Video form

For those of you who don't receive one of the rare cards I've sent out (Yes I actually HAVE sent some this year - it's a "oh we've moved house" thing!) I've put together a little video using some of my paintings and doodlings and a track from a CD recorded at the fabulous church of St Mary and St George in High Wycombe where I guest non-starred with a friend of mine in the alto section for a choir from Stokenchurch. It's a setting of the words below which is, somewhat appropriately considering we're now next door in Worcestershire, the "Herefordshire Christmas Carol" preserved by the great Ralph Vaughan Williams (who's anniversary year it is!)

I love these words and won't be singing them this year for the first time in many years as I'm not in a choir at Christmas for the first time since ... er... well probably since I could string two words and a few notes together!

The words tell us what Christmas is all about. Not something that happened 2000 years ago but something which began so much earlier and continues today:

This is the truth sent from above
The truth of God, the God of love
Therefore don't turn me from your door
But hearken will both rich and poor

The first thing that I do relate
Is that God did man create
The next thing which to you I'll tell
Woman was made with man to dwell

Thus we were heirs to endless woes
Till God and Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by His Son

And at that season of the year
Our blessed redeemer did appear
He here did live and here did preach
And many thousands he did teach

Thus He in love to us behaved
To show us how we must be saved
And if you want to know the way
Be pleased to hear what He did say.

If you're very clever you may pick up a few unspoken Scriptural references through the pictures - not just the ones with words!

Christmas blessings one and all...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Muppets vs Puppets

The young people who came with me to a national event down in London about the Youth Evangelism Fund couldn't quite believe I was so freaked out by the puppets that were shown. I don't know what it is but the human puppets that feature in most incarnations of Christian puppetry wig me out completely. The animals and weird muppety creatures... all fine. People puppets - FREAKED.

This is peculiar really as I LOVE the Muppets (Beaker is sitting on my desk right now!) and am holding out as long as I can before watching Muppet Christmas Carol this year. Yet there is that big difference. In the muppets, humans were always humans and muppets were always muppets in all the colours of the rainbow (even though it's not easy being green).

My youthwork colleagues in my last job thought I was joking when I told them of this phobia but realised it was true when we went to the Christian Resource Exhibition and I had to run the gauntlet of smiley pink furry faces. They did try some aversion therapy and Costa (my mini monkey puppet) still travels around with me in my work bag!

All this has got me thinking about The Muppet Christmas Carol. The followign will have to do for now though... apologies to my more catholic readers... they don't do an Advent song but I have put it in seasonal colours!

Beard, madam?

I'm grinning to myself a bit today as I received a rather bizarre request yesterday. If they can't find anyone else and as I'm quite new would I dress up in a red coat and don the white beard for the sunday school party. "You'd have to speak in a deep voice, of course" said someone who was recently dressed up as a human sized Christingle (yes there does appear to be a recurring theme going on here!!).

It has all made me think about those very silly scenes from the Life of Brian now, by the wonders of modern science and the generosity of the Pythons themselves available on Youtube.

The Life of Brian really was misunderstood as being against Jesus. All the Pythons, in preparing to make the film, re-read the Gospels and came back decided that they couldn't knock this guy as he was honourable... the CHURCH however... totally open to ridicule for some of its curious practices and sometimes lemming like behaviour!

Monday, December 01, 2008

If you're sitting comfortably

You might not be in too much shock that I'm blogging twice in one day!

I had the privilege of doing a lot of waiting over the weekend - a true introduction to Advent. Unfortunately about seven hours of the waiting was in trying to get Photostroy to save my intercessions video only to resort to redoing the whole thing on Windows Movie maker (grrr!).

Anyway the service at Alvechurch was in fact great and the video and other alternative prayer opportunities went down really well. people had the choice of planting a seed of prayer, making bead crosses (thank you Fiona!), colouring celtic knotwork or watching the video as an inspiration to prayer.

I was also oreaching for the service and wanted to give peopel a powerful image to help them think about the value of waiting and the difference between waiting around and waiting actively.

I used the symbolism of bubbles and balloons.
Bubbles take no effort and are pleasing but don't last and you can blow as many as you like but they will never stay long.
Balloons take more effort and skill (knot tying) and will last that bit longer. Without the effor thtough a balloon is just boring.

I then took out a rocket balloon and poitned out that these took stretching, a special inflating straw and much more puff. However the extra effort is worth so much more as it produces something exciting.

I went on to speak about how much more effort it would take to inflate a hot air balloon but how much MORE AMAZING that would be.

Below is the text of what I might have said had I stayed by the lectern but, as I am wont, I wandered around and spoke slightly different (no doubt better) words.

(to be added later today)

Take that you doubter!

Ok so I had a scary moment last week. It was a bit of a shock...

A few weeks ago while ont he way to the Diocesan Board of Education meeting, I switched on YouthComm radio (as I tend to when I'm in Worcester as I can't get it for much more than a few miles outside the city or at home!). A song came on which had really powerful words and was then followed by another song as I pulled up in the car park so I wasn't able to catch who was playing it. It went roudn in my head and the lyrics stuck with me. the words I heard were these:

"Let’s make a new start, The future is ours to find...
Arms open wide
Yea the world starts to come alive
Today this could be the greatest day of our lives
and the world comes alive and the world comes alive"

I had images of using them at Christmas or Easter for talks etc.

Then shock! horror! I discover it's a Take That song. Noooooooo!

I remember htis happened before with Will Young. Iheard three songs over a few months which I thought were by George Michael ... only to discover that I liked Will Young's music. It was good. I even bought the album.

Does this mean I'm turning into a Take That fan??? Please, no!