Wednesday, 25 June 2008

I am not a gardener

I am not a gardener – huge understatement. When we moved to our house in Milton Keynes three years ago, one of the delights not spotted when we first looked round the property, was our very own vine at the bottom of the garden. I was seriously chuffed, and very soon started work on a sermon on Jn. 15 in which now I could speak with the sort of insight that comes only from personal experience. For a very, very short time, I even thought about making this my project in the garden. However, all my romanticising came to nought when I observed very speedily what a huge job this was to be - the vine, grapes included, was more like a triffid!

After the first summer I ‘pruned’ it and the family wondered seriously whether I’d killed it. No such luck! It came back with a vengeance, and realising that this wasn’t something that you just occasionally trimmed, but needed to nurture, and regularly, I cut it back to a stump and gave it some special treatment that would ensure that it wouldn’t grow. But it did! So I gave it a double dose, and that did the trick. I’m sorry if this offends your sensibilities, but as I say, I am not a gardener, and this was too big a job.

I am not a gardener, but some things have to be done, and I can’t hide behind the excuse that I’m too busy, because so is Cazz. So, on a ‘do as necessary’ basis I wield a hedge trimmer in a Rambo-esque manner, and have found that it serves for more than just hedges. And the latest acquisition, for the endless dandelions that grow in the lawn and the soil, is a ‘Wilkinson Sword Weeder’, described by one advertisement as the ‘Wilkinson Sword Miracle Weeder’. I tried it out briefly last week but I’ve just had a proper go, and although ‘miracle weeder’ is a tad exaggerated, it’s pretty good and I’ve just had a productive half-hour, dealing with the weeds.

Andrew, our youngest son, mows the lawn at a price, so I’m now going to take a well earned rest and contemplate whether that’s the gardening done for the rest of the summer.

Monday, 23 June 2008

The return of the Latin Mass

In conversation with some church leaders this week I was fascinated to hear Roman Catholic Bishop George Stack say that the Tridentine rite of the Mass - that is a rite celebrated in Latin - has been reintroduced at Westminster Cathedral. The present Pope is encouraging this, not as an extraordinary rite, but simply as an extra rite alongside the modern forms, and younger priests are being trained to say it.

Turning to the editorial in the Baptist Times, Mark Woods picks up on this. He comments that by all accounts it went down a treat, and is likely to be particularly popular with young people who are keen to experience it. Fascinating, or maybe it's not when you think of the popularity of Taizé with thousands upon thousands of young people.

The vast majority of Taizé songs are sung in Latin. Why? I recall Paul Inwood, a highly creative musician and liturgist in the Roman Catholic church, give the reason that in Latin, everyone is equally not at home. Good answer!

But to take this further, Robert Warren in his book, Being Human, Being Church, recounts a conversation in which a Catholic priest was asked why he used incense in worship, to which he replied, 'Because you can't buy it in Marks & Spencer.'

And Mark Woods, reflecting on this renewal in Catholic worship, comments, 'might it not be a genuine instinct for the mystery which is at the heart of faith, and which in our evangelical Protestant desire for clarity we so easily deny.' He goes on to say, 'We are very anxious to make people feel welcome in church, and so we should be. We are keen to make our translations meaningful, our hymns accessible, and our sermons "relevant" (a slippery word). The trouble is that accessibility can easily overbalance into banality ... Perhaps, for modern evangelicals banality is our besetting sin.'

While I can't see myself leading worship in Latin, nor encouraging it among our Baptist churches, I think that what he says is worth pondering.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Life before Death

A few weeks ago, visiting friends in London we went to the Life before Death exhibition at the Welcome Collection which is part of the Welcome Trust, opp. Euston Station.

The exhibition, now over, was based on the premise that death and dying remain the last taboos, and that nothing teaches us more about life than death itself. Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels asked 24 terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last weeks and days. From these vigils came a series of insightful descriptions and photographic portraits taken before and after death.

This was an uncanny experience. The photos, taken after death, portrayed some at peace, others more as a shell. The ages of the subjects were varied, though many were middle aged, and in the descriptions often expressed that life shouldn't be ending so soon. Their experiences of dying were all different: some were accepting, even embracing; others were angry, or defiant; some had hope of continuity with this life, others none at all. Some of the stories were very sad.

One of our friends has had a life-threatening illness and it was interesting for us to reflect to what degree it was an emotional experience. Certainly it wasn't an overwhelming one, more poignant. You can read about it and see some of the pictures here.

Without minimising in any way the suffering that these people had endured, nor the openness with which some of them awaited death, I felt that stirring I've had on countless occasions at a funeral - be it Christian, agnostic, or atheist, a long life well lived or a life tragically cut short - when at the outset, I've had the privilege of proclaiming the gospel words of Jesus, 'I am the resurrection and the life'.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Tranformative encounters with the arts at an early age

What triggered this train of thought was a journey to Tring this morning. I was listening to Radio 3, joining part-way through a refined and understated recording of Debussy's Suite Bergamasque (incl. Clair de Lune). This was followed by two pieces of Russian folk music, performed by the Osipov Russian Folk Orchestra - talk about a blast from the past!

This got me thinking about transformative encounters with the arts at an early age. For me, it began by hearing Rimsky Korsakov's, Flight of the Bumblebee, at the age of five, which clearly made an impression because apparently I gave a very detailed account of the performance to the rest of the family. I must have been about seven or eight when I took part in a concert playing Tallis' Canon as part of a recorder choir - the sensation of creating harmony by different groups of recorders repeating the same melody several bars apart was nothing other than sublime. And then the ultimate experience came shortly afterwards when I encountered for the first time the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This was for me the most beautiful music in the world, and so for Christmas that year I got my first LP record which I still have. I was a very strange little boy!

I saw the Osipov Balalaika Orchestra on Blue Peter, and as a result, for a birthday treat, went to the Royal Albert Hall, my first visit, to hear them live. They were sensational - vibrant, dramatic, virtuosic, and oh so Russian. It was the first concert I ever went to, and again it was tranformative. And it's ages, probably years, even decades, since I thought about them. Until this morning.

I recall a conversation with a colleague of their experience of going to the National Gallery at an early age and encountering Turner's The Fighting Temeraire, and how it changed his life. And this is what's fascinating. I believe that these experiences of music were for me, life changing, and influenced the trajectory of my life.

It would be fascinating to hear from others about experiences of music (all kinds), dance, painting, sculpture, film, poetry, fiction, which at an early age had this effect. Over to you.

Just to add, I had another transforming encounter when I arrived at Tring, in the form of the most moist lemon cake I've tasted in a long time!

Monday, 16 June 2008

Viva la Vida

Just to show that my musical taste is eclectic and that I'm not a complete anorak, I'm enjoying the new Coldplay album, Viva la Vida. It's an enormously varied collection with a number of diverse influences, possibly down to the involvement of Brian Eno. Previously I've enjoyed Coldplay, but found them a bit same-y, and often I've felt as though I'm being sucked into a melancholic swamp, tunefully of course. This is different, whilst remaining Coldplay. Some interesting religious imagery - haven't a clue what it means!

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Stunning bassoon playing

I’ve just received a new recording of pieces for bassoon and orchestra, played by Karen Geoghegan, accompanied by the Orchestra of Opera North (the orchestra I was a part of a long time ago now!). Karen Geoghegan was the runner-up in the BBC 2 programme Classical Star. I missed this but heard from a number of people how good she was. They weren’t exaggerating. Apparently, Chandos, the record label, phoned her the day after the Final asking her to make a CD. She is a stunning player!

I’m guessing that Karen can’t be older than twenty, as she is presently in her second year at the Royal Academy of Music, where already she’s won prizes and performed with the Academy String Orchestra. She is a genuine virtuoso for whom nothing sounds hard work - it’s all well within her competence, she's intensely musical and makes a gorgeous noise. The CD includes a concerto by Hummel, Weber’s Andante and Rondo Ungarese, Elgar’s Romance, and an arrangement of Summertime, by Gershwin which makes you swoon.

I read that one of the spin-off’s for Nicholas Daniel’s rise to fame through winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1980, is that many new works have been composed for him and added to the oboe repertoire. I hope that the same happens for Karen, in turn benefiting all bassoonists.

In the sleeve-notes there is a great description of the bassoon as the Cinderella of woodwind instruments, rather than the clown of the orchestra. The bassoon is frequently called upon to play expressively and beautifully, and on this recording, amidst obvious humour there is much lyricism. I’m not sure I’m entirely taken by the association with Gorgonzola cheese, but let Cecil Gray speak for himself, ‘Actually the bassoon can be the most romantic and passionate of instruments and Gorgonzola can be the finest of cheeses – but they must both be treated properly.’

If all this sounds a bit of an anorak-ish – my apologies!

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Jeptha's Vow

Several weeks ago I was in Bournemouth and visited the eccentric, even bizarre, Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. Among the mostly ordinary works of art was a painting by Edwin Longsden Long recounting the story of Jeptha’s daughter.

Yesterday I read this story as part of the lectionary and it’s really got under my skin. Jeptha makes a vow to God, that if the Ammonites be given into his hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returns victorious shall be the LORD’s, offered up as a burnt offering. And who should come out of the door upon his return but his daughter. Jeptha follows through his vow, giving his daughter two months grace to wander on the mountains bewailing her virginity.

This story is abhorrent. I know that there is a huge historical and cultural gap between then and now. I know that it was a primitive world in which this sort of practice was common. However, human sacrifice was never common practice for God’s people, and expressly forbidden. And what I find particularly challenging is that Jeptha is included as one of the heroes of faith in Heb. 11.

One has to say that on two previous occasions Jeptha opened his mouth with great effect. But the best that I can manage on this occasion is that he was struck with a bad attack of automatic mouth, and that though some may commend him for honouring his word to God, he is to be roundly condemned for what he did. He did the wrong thing arguably for the right reason but it was still wrong, very wrong. However, thankfully, the scriptures tell it as it is.

But then just to make it really interesting there is his daughter’s resignation and acceptance of the situation.

Ron Rolheiser, a writer I appreciate enormously, brings a creative approach. ‘There’s a rather nasty patriarchal character to this story (such were the times) and, of course, we are right to abhor the very idea of human sacrifice, but this particular story is not historical and is not meant literally. It’s archetype, metaphor, a poetry of the soul within which death and virginity are not meant in their literal sense. It’s meant to teach a profound truth, namely, all of us, no matter age or state in life, must, at some point, mourn what’s incomplete and not consummated in our lives.

We are all Jepthah’s daughters. In the end, like her, we all die virgins, having lived incomplete lives, not having achieved the intimacy we craved, and having yearned to create a lot more things than we were able to birth. In this life, nobody gets the full symphony. There’s a place inside us where we all bewail our virginity, and this is true too of married people, just as it is of celibates. At some deep level, this side of eternity, we all sleep alone. We need to mourn this, whatever form that might take.’

All very fascinating!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

CBA Assembly - Outside in, inside out: church and culture in conversation

On Saturday we held our annual Central Baptist Association Assembly, this year at Stopsley Baptist Church, Luton. Ever since coming to the CBA, I have experienced these events as very good occasions, with inspiring worship, great keynote speakers, and stimulating seminars. And this year was no exception, with John Weaver, the BU President drawing us into his theme, ‘Outside in, inside out: church and culture in conversation’. John opened windows, deepened our thinking, and provoked us to engage more fully with our culture and world. He made several references to Brian McLaren’s ‘Everything Must Change’, which I must order – sounds like a worthwhile read.

I hosted one of the seminars, ‘Not for sale – internationally or at home’: sexual exploitation here and abroad, led by Hannah Wilson, the BMS Representative for Counter Trafficking, & Hilary Wilmer, Chair of the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping. They were superb, although predictably it was gritty stuff. I was given a part in an ad-hoc drama, playing the part of a pimp, which was a first for me!

My colleague, Colin Pye, is a worship leader I appreciate. He’s contemporary in style, yet draws on a wide range of material. He excels at putting together creative liturgies, combining words with stunning visuals. He began the day with this prayer taken from ‘Gathering for Worship, Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples’ – it’s a gem!

Walk softly as you come here
for this is holy ground.
God dwells in this place.
God the Lord of time and space
was here before us,
and is here now.

Tread carefully as you come here
for this is holy ground.
By God’s life-giving word
every creature was spoken into existence,
and is loved into eternity.
God the Lord of abundant life
was here before us
and is here now,

Walk quietly as you come here
For this is holy ground.
Now is the time
and here is the place:
to listen intently to God’s Spirit within us;
to see, as for the first time,
the hidden depths
of Christ’s suffering for us;
to look expectantly
for the signs of God’s Kingdom around us.

Holy God:
softly, carefully, quietly,
we come here,
celebrating your presence
within us
and between us,
this day and always.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Alan Yentob - Imagine - brokenness and beauty

I’ve just seen Tuesday evening’s Imagine with Alan Yentob, ‘Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain’, based upon Oliver Sachs’ new book, Musiciophilia, which looks at the neurological origins of our musical ability and appreciation, exploring cases in which the wiring seems to have got crossed.

It was quite astounding to see people with sleep sickness emerge from a catatonic state to sing and dance. Matt Giordano, a young man with severe Torettes discovered at the age of two that drumming helped to bring some order out of the utter chaos in which he existed, and it was incredible to see him conduct a large group of fellow sufferers for whom the same experience of drumming provided the same sense of peace.

Derek Paravicini, a blind man in his twenties who is severely autistic with huge learning difficulties is able to play the piano brilliantly. Derek can hear a complex piece of music just once and play it back perfectly, processing the music at lightning speed. He can then take the same piece and improvise around it. This man, who in all other respects is like a four year old who has trouble counting to ten, plays with nuance and refinement, and is able to perform publicly as part of a jazz group, demonstrating an impressive rapport with the rest of the band.

Alan Yentob himself became a guinea pig, allowing his brain to be scanned by MRI as he listened to three very different pieces of music. The most interesting result came while listening to Jessye Norman singing one of the Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, a piece which Yentob acknowledged has special emotional meaning. In the two other pieces there was minimal brain activity, but in this piece his brain was bathed in blood, showing an intense emotional response. As one reviewer put it, ‘He listened to her and his mind blushed. The neuroscientist said he had never seen anything quite like it before.’

In commenting on the subjects of the programme, the same reviewer said this, ‘When you saw them playing solo you wondered briefly whether in rhythm and melody they'd simply found a more appealing prison cell for their trapped and trammelled minds, but the film revealed at the end that they could play in concert with others too. Music wasn't a different kind of cage, it was an opening to the world of ordinary talents.’

One part of me was ‘wowed’ at the potential of the human brain to do this sort of thing, and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ came to mind. And with this a gladness that for these people and those who love and care for them, this is indeed ‘an opening to the world of ordinary [or extraordinary] talents’. However, this was in tension with another part of me which observed that these ‘Heroes’-like abilities have emerged out of such dysfunction leaving me feeling quite uncomfortable with the ‘wow’. I guess that this is another stark example of the ambiguity of living in God’s beautiful, incredible, yet broken and distressing world. Sometimes the brokenness emerges out of the beautiful, and sometimes the beautiful emerges out of the brokenness.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Night of Musical Stars

On Saturday evening I had the pleasure of taking part in a fund-raising concert in aid of the Streetlight Trust, a Christian organisation that works with street-children in Manila, in the Philippines. The evening was billed as, ‘A Night of Musical Stars’, and what I brought to the constellation was as part of a bassoon trio. At the beginning of the concert we didn’t have a name, but by the end, and as a result of a competition, we were named GAS (Geoff and the Shrimptons – Sarah and Chloe). It was either that or Bassooner or Later!

I was at music college with Sarah many years ago, and she’s gone on to become a highly respected composer - see her blog Razzamajazz - as well as a bassoonist. Chloe, her daughter is studying music at University. We played pieces by the not-well-known-composer-unless-you-play-bassoon-trios, Geoffrey Hartley, and we played them well. It was great fun!

But the real star of the show was Philip Achille who, in November 2005, aged 16, became the World Youth Harmonica Champion and the Open Harmonica Champion, at the World Harmonica Festival in Germany. In 2006 he received the Tabor Foundation Award at the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2006 competition. And in 2007 he was a featured soloist during the BBC Proms, playing a concerto with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and he performed at the Royal Variety Performance, in front of the Queen. Philip is a real virtuoso, blending a fluid technique with a gorgeous sound and demonstrating huge musicianship that shines through. His playing was stunning and if you want to listen go to YouTube.

The Secklow Brass gave a rousing and polished performance, Peter Fisher dashed off a number of pieces from the virtuoso violin repertoire, and a choir sang some of Sarah’s most recent compositions, including a beautiful setting of ‘Angel voices ever singing’.

It was a feast of musical entertainment and in the process nearly £7,000 was raised, including matching by sponsors Abbey National. Well done to Chris for arranging it all, and doing a fantastic job of compering it.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Holiday and a return to West Wing

I’ve just emerged from a week’s holiday and compared to the usual pace of life it was chilled and consequently restful. Good food, meeting with friends, music and films were the main ingredients. Add to this a spot of gardening which surprisingly I enjoyed, and a trip to Oxford which unsurprisingly I also enjoyed. This included my first experience of the chapel at New College, which is like a cathedral chancel and not much more – beautiful yet slightly odd.

Films included Charlie Wilson’s War, which has just come out on DVD and has been at the top of my ‘must see’ list. With a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) this was not disappointing. In fact it was so good we watched it twice in 24 hours and could have seen it again.

This in turn inspired us to start watching the West Wing series again (for the third time). You could deduce a certain obsessiveness in this and you wouldn’t be wrong, but I have to say it gets better, and for me there’s nothing that touches it. I’m gripped by the dialogue - much of it on the move (Sorkin’s ‘walk and talk’) - together with brilliant characterisation, compelling plot, gentle humour and at times deeply moving emotional content. So, ‘what shall we watch?’ isn’t a question that will be asked for a few months at least.

We spent an evening at the cinema to see the new Indiana Jones and had a great time. The film was fun yet predictable and nothing like the white knuckle ride of the first three, especially the first.

Despite not great weather, I managed to cycle every day but one, so I’ve justified the slight excess of good food. Now it’s a return to the more usual pace!