Tuesday, 30 December 2008

An Excellent Christmas!

It was an excellent Christmas for presents, and these are some that I will enjoy for a long time:

'As steals the morn ...', Handel arias and scenes for tenor, with Mark Padmore and The English Concert - exquisite!

Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Lisa Batiashvili - the rave reviews are justified - sensational!

Alex Ross's book, 'The Rest is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century', which recently won The Guardian First Book Award. Bjork describes it as 'an incredibly nourishing book' and having read a quarter of the 600 pages I'm finding it riveting. Ross manages to combine an immense knowledge of the subject with a highly accessible and entertaining style, as he trawls through the last century exploring the different paths of music in their historical and cultural context. 

I'm still waiting for some jazz, Abdullah Ibrahim, Senzo, to be delivered, so there's more to come!

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Presentation of Jesus - Rembrandt, Levertov and John Coltrane

This morning I read Luke 2. 22-35, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I find this a most moving episode, with Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, followed immediately by the warning to Mary. 

Rembrandt captures something special in his picture of a seriously old Simeon, who has the appearance of failing eyesight, and yet sees with eyes of another kind.

Denise Levertov does something similar in the brevity of her poem, Candlemas:

With certitude
Simeon opened
ancient arms
to infant light.
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
he knew
new life.
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.

And then Maggi Dawn, in her book Beginnings and Endings, captures something else in her wonderful John Coltrane story. She recounts the words of Simeon:
'"Now, Lord," he said, "I can die happy. Now I've seen the thing I've been waiting for all my life. I've done what I came here for. I am fulfilled. Nunc dimittis: now you can let me go."

John Coltrane, the jazz saxophonist, is famous all over the world for his beautiful music. The interesting thing about jazz is that, more than any other kind of music, every performance is unique. One night, Coltrane performed "A Love Supreme", one of his most famous pieces, and as he played, every last ounce of his skill and musicianship seemed to come together in an absolutely magical performance. Just that one time, he was even better than the best. Everything about that performance was sublime, and when he'd finished, as he walked offstage, his drummer heard him breathe two words: "Nunc dimittis". It was a unique moment of glory and Coltrane himself recognised that there was something beyond accolades going on. Somehow he had touched heaven and he knew that he had done what he came for. The glory of God is revealed in those magic moments when we are touched by something beyond human achievement, when we see the presence of God break into the ordinary and there is a sense that life has been fulfilled. Heaven and earth collide.'

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A Joyful Christmas!

A favourite Christmas prayer:

Today, O God, 
the soles of your feet
have touched the earth.
the back street, the forgotten place
have been lit up with significance.
the households of earth
welcome the King of heaven.
For you have come among us,
you are one of us.
So may our songs rise to surround your throne
as our knees bend to salute your cradle.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Festival of Lessons and Carols at St Albans

On Monday evening, we went as a family to St Alban's Cathedral for the Festival of Lessons and Carols. Interestingly, I'd just read nah then, which was sort of appreciative of this sort of thing, but asked the question, is it really an act of worship? 

For me, this event is a high point in the journey towards Christmas. The overall impact is so very different from what we as Baptists do, even accepting our diversity. We don't do buildings that are huge and seriously old. We don't do robed choirs made up predominantly of boys. We don't do ceremonial clerical dress and carefully choreographed movements, nor do we use such a structured liturgy which is followed to the letter. We do candles in some of our churches, but not in the number or with the same effect. We do organs, though far less frequently these days, and overall not very well.

Last night, all of this was done spectacularly. The readings, eight of them, were constructed around John chapter one. We sang seven carols. As the bell struck at eight o'clock, and the cathedral was plunged into darkness save for candlelight, the choir sang from a far distance as they progressed in, a gorgeous arrangement of 'Silent night'.  They also sang a new work by Simon Johnson, 'O Magnum Mysterium', and pieces by Herbert Howells, John Taverner, and Poulenc, all superbly. And we prayed. It was undoubtedly performance, and our participation added something to the performance. So, to answer Glen's question, was it worship? 

Certainly it wasn't like any worship experience I've had in a Baptist church. For me, it was an occasion which impacted my senses with overwhelming beauty (to my way of perceiving) and reinforced something of the mystery of the incarnation. In the process I encountered God. And I think it did the same sort of thing for the rest of the family although they might not express it that way. 

Would I want to do this every Sunday? No.  

If I was to be critical of our way of doing Christmas, often we don't let the story speak for itself, and stifle it with our preaching. And in our preaching we don't engage seriously with the incarnation and use Christmas as a stepping stone to get to the cross as quickly as possible - I heard yesterday of a worship leader berating the congregation for having their eyes on the cradle rather than the cross.

We ourselves have our own way of performance which includes our preaching, but also increasingly our worship style.

And generally we don't do mystery. We tend more to be pragmatists who have it sorted.

But then, we certainly do the participative which can be 'richly human and genuinely worshipful', and Glen's experience shows us in relationship at our best, doing church rather than church being done to us. And that's in part why I am what I am, and why I wouldn't want the glorious experience of Monday evening all the time.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


Late yesterday, we decided to go to The Stables to hear Koshka. It was a bit of a gamble; two violins and guitar playing Russian gypsy music certainly isn't my default setting for music. However, earlier in the year we had pushed beyond our comfort zone when, on the strength of reviews, went to hear Moishe's Bagel. This was described as 'rip-roaring, foot-stomping, jazz-inflected klezmer and Balkan music' and our experience proved to be one of the highlights of the year.

So, were we disappointed? No!

BBC Scotland sum them up, 'The charming Lev Atlas, fiery Oleg Ponomarev and Nigel Clarke are all virtuosi; the violins agile and by turns soaring and brooding, the guitar astoundingly fluent with a plectrum on nylon strings. Gypsy jazz, achingly beautiful Russian airs, cafe-style music, and some pieces in homage to the Hot Club style of Grapelli and Reinhardt. In the wrong hands, playing like that can degenerate into a flash showcase for virtuosity,but all three have their hearts in the music, and while their copious abilities are necessary to play their material, they never overshadow the communication.' 

What was captivating about the evening was the variety that they managed to engender. This could have been seriously monotonous. But masterfully they kept you with them with changes of musical style, seasonal stories, and humour, so that at the end of the evening they received one of the best receptions I've witnessed at The Stables, giving two encores. This was also largely due to the interplay of entirely different personalities. Lev, is a superb, obviously classically trained violin virtuoso, currently the principal viola in the Orchestra of Scottish Opera - a clean-cut, 'nice' guy. Oleg is an equally superb violin virtuoso, but with far more of a folk/jazz emphasis, delivered with charismatic flare - he cuts more of a romantic, Byronic character. And the guitarist, Nigel, is the glue, but so much more. Each was integral, but together they provided a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts.  

It was an enriching, enjoyable and highly unusual seasonal experience and if you live in Manchester, Stirling, or Otley, you still have a chance to hear them.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Annunciation - He Qi, The Godbearing Life, and Denise Levertov

I'm preparing to preach on the Annunciation, and I've been looking at paintings, dipping into a much-loved book, and reading poetry!  

I'm really taken with this artist He Qi whom I first came across through the cover picture of the Regent's Study Guide, Attention to Christ: Reflections on Baptist Spirituality.  And then, upon entering the chapel at Regent's, I encountered a number of his prints adorning the walls.  Check out the He Qi Gallery

An inspiring book which has informed my thinking, is, Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.  The authors have some profound things to say about pastoral ministry as Godbearing, taking Mary, the Theotokos, Godbearer, as a model.

A favourite poet is Denise Levertov, and in her poem, Annunciation, she concludes:
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail, 
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel's reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power - in narrow flesh,
the sum of light. 
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love - 

but who was God.

I'm not sure how much of this will be explicit in what I say, but my soul has been nourished in the process!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

How music instructs Advent

I've blogged today at Hopeful Imagination. If you're particularly interested in how music and theology can interact, especially at Advent, you might find this interesting. 

And if this pointer counts as a blog, it's my hundredth! I feel quite chuffed!!