Monday, 31 January 2011

An Altar in the World

I've just come to the end of Barbara Brown Taylor's, An Altar in the World. I've found it one of those books that is such a pleasure to read that inevitably it brings a slight sadness to conclude. On the back cover blurb it's described as 'lyrical', and 'reveals the countless ways we can discover divine depths in the small things we do and see every day.'

Barbara Brown Taylor takes some fairly large themes, but grounds them in twelve practices. So, Vision has the chapter heading, The Practice of Waking Up to God, and Incarnation, The Practice of Walking on the Earth. You really could read the twelve chapters in any order, although it seems most appropriate to conclude with Benediction, The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings.

In The Practice of Feeling Pain, which develops into a brief exploration of the Old Testament book of Job, she writes, 'Pain is provocative. Pain pushes people to the edge, causing them to ask fundamental questions such as "Why is this happening?" and "How can this be fixed?" Pain brings out the best in people along with the worst. Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo. Pain begs for change, and when those in its grip find no release on earth, plenty of them look to heaven - including some whose formal belief systems preclude such wishful thinking.'

In a chapter on Prayer, 'The Practice of Being Present to God, she talks of an experience of shared silence with a group of students. 'Young people whose heads stay full of iTunes, Spanish homework, instant messaging, play practice, parental advice, Guitar Hero, cross-country, term papers, e-mail, romantic sags, CSI, chorale, X Box, debate team, Second Life, baseball, and the procurement of illegal substances can be startled to hear the sound of their own heartbeats for the first time. They had no idea there was so much space inside of them. No one ever taught them how to hold still enough long enough for the shy deer-soul inside of them to step into the clearing and speak.'

'The shy deer-soul inside of them' - what a gorgeous, evocative image!

This is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful book, though highly accessible, which not only interests, nourishes and moves the reader, but does so through drawing one into an internal dialogue with the author's themes.

The sub-title is, Finding the Sacred Beneath our Feet, and the final poem, taken from a book, 'The Essential Rumi', I loved for an obvious reason,
'Today like every other day we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.'

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Modern British Sculpture

On Saturday I visited the new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Modern British Sculpture. Whenever, I go to an exhibition of sculpture, I'm never quite sure what to expect, and though I go with an open attitude, I tend not to be excited. By now I ought to have learned because I don't think I've yet been disappointed, and I've been thoroughly wowed by Anthony Gormley, and Anish Kapoor, to name but two.

Overall, it was really good, but it started better than it ended for me. If one of art's purposes is to provoke, Damien Hirst's, Let's Eat Outdoors Today, certainly did that with its repugnant and repellant display of decaying food on a barbecue, and a picnic table, surrounded by real flies, masses of them. I'm glad to say that it's contained within a sealed glass box! Hirst explains 'how we all avoid dirt, but ultimately go back into dirt', and his interest in how we try 'to isolate the horror from our lives and remove it'.

The high points for me were Jacob Epstein's Adam, Henry Moore's Reclining Figure, and Barbara Hepworth's Single Form (Memorial). I thought this last piece, which normally resides in Battersea Park, was mesmerising, and will abide with me for some time.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

All You Have to Do is Listen

I see on the BBC News website that a growing number of music-lovers, unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion, have decided to take action. Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with seriously good speakers, dim the lights, and listen to a classic album, all the way through. They're called Classic Album Sundays, and the rules are simple but strict: no talking, no texting, you must listen to every song on the album.

We're not talking about so-called 'classical' music, but classic albums. This month's album was David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love featured in a previous month.

Call them geeky but they make a good point. I think my iPod is brilliant and I use the shuffle feature frequently and with delight, but it has limitations and does less than justice to the 'songs' which normally were conceived as part of a whole. Add to that, present day culture in which music is heard, or rather played, as a constant background to the rest of life, and their point is all the stronger.

Music operates at a number of levels, but there are times for listening to music, attentive listening to music. I make no case for aural wallpaper, but there is a helpful distinction made between listening to music on what Aaron Coopland calls 'the sensuous plane' 'for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself ... The plane on which we hear music without thinking, without considering it any way'; and what Rob Kapilow in his book, All You Have to Do is Listen - Music from the Inside Out, calls, '"listening for the plot", that is listening for the way musical ideas are connected and strung together to create a purely musical "story"'.

Both are legitimate, but 'listening for the plot' can be deeply enriching, though hard work, especially in music which isn't immediately whistle-able, and which takes time to develop without providing immediate gratification. The fact is that some, and maybe much, appreciation of beauty isn't simply presented on a plate without any effort.

It seems to me that this reaches into other aspects of life, such as how we listen to people. I guess that most of us have given the appearance of listening whilst thinking about what we're going to say next. Or simply giving the impression of listening while being somewhere else in our head. But to listen to a person, to really listen, requires hard work. And it's something that's of vital importance. A conviction that I've held for many years is that one of the greatest needs of a person is to be heard.

Anne Long, in her wonderful book, Listening, shares three images of listening: as gift, hospitality and healing. She issues a challenge as she speaks of the ears of the Body of Christ, needing to be alert and functioning if they are to be of any use.

And then there's the issue of how we listen to God. From my tradition as a Baptist, we stress the importance of discerning the mind of Christ, and listening to what the Spirit is saying, but I think we could learn a lot more from those traditions who really listen, attentively and at depth, and not just for the first stirrings of feel-good, or the first 'word from God'.

Music, people, God. No talking, no texting, just listen.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The King's Speech

On Saturday we went to see The King's Speech.  Just before Christmas, I enjoyed the latest Harry Potter and thought it had some real substance and darkness to it; I enjoyed also The Last Voyage of the Dawntreader, though it could never live up to the book; but The King's Speech was in a different class and totally enthralled me. (Admittedly they were three very different films!)

I was deeply touched by moments of grace throughout the film, the friendship between two unlikely people, and the gargantuan struggle that climaxed in an epic display of strength in weakness. At the end of the performance, the audience applauded, something that I can't remember happening before at the cinema.

On Thursday I led a Retreat with students from the South Wales Baptist College. They were a really nice bunch and I had a good day with them. One of the things that we touched upon, reflecting on music, and music especially in relation to the psalms, was the 'stickiness' of music. Music very quickly attaches itself to experiences. And this is never more so than in films. I think it was the Allegri Miserere which for one person had a very negative association because of its use in a film. This is highly instructive for our use of music in worship, and something I need to be frequently reminded of - what works for me might well not work for you, and indeed have the opposite effect!

The music in The King's Speech included Mozart's Clarinet Concerto - though you don't hear anything, or very little, of the clarinet - and the slow movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. However, I will never listen to the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony without seeing King George VI, summon up every ounce of energy pronouncing his speech to the nation at the outbreak of war. It was one of those all-time great moments for me. Go see!