Saturday 26 December 2015

What Does St Paul Say About Christmas?

At first sight, nothing. You won't find 'Christmas' or 'Nativity' anywhere in Paul's writings.

But what Paul does write about is the difference that Jesus' life, death and resurrection make, and the incarnation of God into human form is an important part of that. For example, in his letter to the community of Jesus' followers at Philippi he writes:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Rowan Williams has recently written a super little book, Meeting God In Paul, in which he distils out the three key ideas which flow through Paul's writings; ideas which made Paul so radical and disturbing to the religious authorities of his day, but which inspired those seeking a better way to be God's people.

The first is about a social and cultural world of 'outsiders' and 'insiders' - just look at a few Daily Mail front pages to see how that continues to this day.

Jesus was born in a backwater of the Roman Empire, there was no room for him so he was laid into a manger, his mother's husband was not his biological father, and while he was still tiny his family had to flee to Egypt as refugees. Jesus was an outsider from birth, so maybe it's not surprising that, in his ministry, he welcomed outsiders and got really quite nasty with those who would reject them.

Which brings us to Williams' second big theme in Paul: welcome for all. Whatever your social standing or ethnic/cultural background, whatever your 'moral status' in the eyes of society, however important or unimportant you may be in the world, in Christ Jesus you are a child of God.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
At Jesus birth all sorts of unlikely people were invited and welcomed: from the poorest shepherds to wealthy foreign magi.

In the Church of England at present, working out the implications of this for its own internal practices is causing considerable grief. Nevertheless, a vital part of the Christmas message is that all are welcome to come and join in the celebrations, whatever their background or religious standing.

For Williams all of this is tied together in Paul's third thread: that of a new creation, present now and coming at the culmination of the age. One reason for Jesus' radical inclusion and welcome is that anyone who becomes part of the body of his followers, through baptism and through receiving God's Spirit, becomes a new creation.

There are lots of questions raised by that last sentence, but the basic point, I think, is that all things will be made new when Jesus returns, but this renewal process has already begun in Jesus' followers. It's a reasonably clear parallel to Jesus' references to the Kingdom of God, which also have the 'in the future but breaking through now' element to them.

And that process of new creation all began when the 'Son of God' - the one through whom the entire universe of space and time was made - somehow became localised within that universe, a tiny baby born to a young woman named Mary and laid in a manger.

New hope for a world in trouble, new light in a world where unusual and unexpected beauty can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places.

I hope you are having a joyful Christmas season; and wherever there are times of darkness may the baby Jesus, so tiny in his manger, drive back that darkness, bringing peace, hope and the light of God's love.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Christ-Light At St John's

"God so loved the world that he gave his only son ...", which is why many churches celebrate the run-up to Christmas by holding services where we give Christingles, Christ-lights, to children (and adults, often), and take up a special collection to give to the Children's Society for their work helping children facing poverty, abuse and neglect - taking the light of Jesus into dark places.

I was thoroughly chuffed on Sunday when we got a congregation of 94 at the St John's Christingle service, pretty much all of whom seemed to be joining in with readings, music and prayers as we worshipped Jesus, the light of the world, together. It was really good to have a contingent there from the uniformed groups, not just joining us but helping out in all sorts of ways too. They really added to the occasion.

Obviously I was chuffed about that worship, but I was also pleased because St John's has been through a rough time over the last year or so, and the good turnout - the second highest Christingle congregation of the past ten years - is a sign that we may be coming out of it.

Last night's carol service, a very different style of service, also had a good turnout (although I don't have last year's figures for comparison, I suspect we were up here as well) and benefited from a choir which included a number of guests from groups we have worked with over the past year or two, including St Peter's of course.

Similarly, Sunday morning congregations over the Autumn have held steady in the mid-forties - not enough for the long term survival of St John's as a living church, it's true, but still a sign of recovery and consolidation. It is also well above the congregations back in the 2008/9 interregnum. Although I should add that the current vacancy  - where we have lost our priest in charge, Jeremy, but are still part of the CTM parish led by Mike as Rector - is a very different proposition from the interregnum after Philip left.

As the PMC process continues, and as we look for a new priest to join the parish team with particular responsibility for enabling transformation at St John's, it is, I believe, vital that St John's continues to build and prepare, ready to join in whatever God is up to here in this community of Lower Caversham.

Meanwhile, as the Christmas season continues, may you experience the light of Jesus in your own life, and may you continually find ways to reflect it into the lives of those around you.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Sacred Cows

Sacred cow: Something too highly regarded to be open to criticism or curtailment.

Lots of us find change in our lives to be an uncomfortable process for all sorts of reasons, both practical and abstract. Change is especially difficult when it challenges core assumptions which we may not even have realised were there.

The same discomfort, but magnified, tends to face churches as we recognise our need for change. St John's Church has been wrestling with it for a few years now, and we're coming to recognise that our pace of change needs to increase dramatically into the near future.

Our Rector, who specialises in interesting questions, asked a few weeks ago what the 'sacred cows' were here: what is there which is sacrosanct for us - not open to change at all.

The trouble with initial responses to a question like that, at least for me, is that I tend to think of other people's sacred cows: the pulpit which is never used - long made obsolete by a sound system and a change to the old patriarchal culture - but which we can't get rid of, or even move; or archaic language used in prayer - often taken to mean the exact opposite of what was meant originally. I'm happy to lose their sacred cows, but I wasn't even sure I had any.

Later I did some more thinking. We definitely need to change and grow, but what would be too high a price?

As a parish we say that our core values are being 'inclusive, generous and life-giving'. At St John's we try to focus those values around being welcoming: as a church community we aim to offer a welcome which is open, inclusive, generous and life-giving. Somewhere in that lie my sacred cows.

Over the river is a large Anglican church, one of whose senior members has a reputation for being very unwelcoming toward same-sex couples: they hit the front page of the local paper on the issue some years back. If that church offered us a group led by this senior member to help us grow, I would take a lot of convincing.

Similarly there are a number of religious groups around Reading, many following a charismatic tradition, who are virulently anti-Muslim. I don't see how partnership with such groups could possibly work.

Now, I need to be careful here. Being unwelcoming to those with reservations about same-sex relationships, say, is also neither inclusive nor open. But there is a difference between following one's conscience in one's own life and trying to use your values to exclude or to manipulate the behaviour of others. As the saying goes: "If you don't believe in gay marriage then don't marry a gay person."

There is a question of integrity, of being true to the Christian values we proclaim. There is also, for me, a fundamental question around what it is which is distinctive about the faith proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament, particularly by Jesus himself.

My reading is that Jesus offered openness and genuine welcome to those excluded by the religious groups of his day. I am in the middle of a little book by Rowan Williams on Paul, looking why what he said was so revolutionary, then and now. Again the answer lies around inclusion not exclusion, welcome not rejection, removing barriers not building them.

In my view any attempt to build up St John's numbers by building walls, by scorning and excluding others, and by emphasising our own holiness and distinctiveness, may or may not help with numbers and dedication, but it would be building up something which is non-Christian, or at best sub-Christian.

Herod's Temple was characterised by its high walls and by its levels of exclusion: a building whose purpose was meant to be bringing people close to God in worship became a place dedicated to separating people from God. When Jesus died on the cross, we are told that the curtain in that Temple, the curtain which separated off the 'Holy of Holies', God's dwelling place, was torn in two, from top to bottom, opening the way to God for all.

Following Jesus is about enabling people to meet God for themselves - all sorts of people, irrespective of gender, social class, race, religious upbringing, relationships, scientific literacy, doubts and certainties. All are welcome to 'taste and see' in their own way; our job is to welcome them and to share what we have found to be life-affirming.

That's my sacred cow. What about you?

Sunday 13 December 2015

Autumn Moon: Pagan Danger?

'Mystic Halloween Market', 'pagan folk', heavy metal music - is that sort of festival an appropriate place for good Christian people? Or even "children of God: created in His image, fallen, redeemed, struggling, looking forward to renewal" to quote my own sidebar? Were we putting ourselves in dire spiritual danger by going to such a festival?

There are many - maybe you are one - to whom this has an obvious answer: for some it is obvious that paganism and the occult are spiritually dangerous; for others it is equally obvious that this is just empty superstition and intolerance, and that such festivals should be judged on their music alone.

A few thoughts:-

Firstly, for me the baseline is that Jesus is Lord. Whatever spiritual dangers might be associated with such things, Jesus is our rock and our protector.

On one level that is the final word, but as fallen people in a fallen world we have our own responsibility to take spiritual care. More on that a bit further down.

So, secondly, what issues and problems might the occult pose for a follower of Jesus? 

I think the first thing to say is that, in spite of its name (and the boozy skeleton shown above), the Mystic Halloween Market was much more about paganism than about the occult as such. In pagan circles Halloween is more associated with Samhain, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter - the 'darker half' of the year - than with any Christian, or ex-Christian, tradition of 'All Hallow's Eve' as a festival of the dead.

Nevertheless, occult links exist, and it is, I think, worth briefly looking at a couple of its issues. Occult practices cover a wide range of areas - overlapping with broader paganism in places - but I just want to focus on a couple of these. 

The first is an occult focus on death and communicating with the dead. For Christians, following Jesus is about life, life at its fullest, so focussing on death is facing the wrong way. Even the cross, apparently a symbol of torture and death, is seen as being transformed by Jesus' sacrifice into a sign of God's love and the life he brings.

Then, when it comes to communicating with the dead, the Christian viewpoint is that this is something to be done through prayer: if we believe that someone's spirit is with God then prayer is the way to tell what needs to be told and to feel their ongoing presence and comfort, along with God's. 

Attempting to short-circuit that through mediums, seances and even ouija boards can be seen as one or more of: futile, because the dead don't talk; or inconsiderate, because the dead are meant to be left to 'rest in peace' until the resurrection; or even dangerous, because you can end up communicating with something much nastier than you intended. 

The Old Testament ban on witches was almost certainly a ban on mediums, those who attempt to raise the dead - see the Witch of Endor - not on harmless, if eccentric, elderly ladies, nor any of the other groups an overly intolerant Medieval Church used it against.

Thirdly, what about paganism? The essential question for a follower of Jesus is: why worship the created instead of the creator? That said, paganism refers basically to a group of religions, many rehashed heavily for the modern age, which - like nearly all religions - have their good sides and their bad. The appropriately Christian approach is to celebrate what is life-affirming and to refrain from involvement in whatever denies life in its fullness for all. But avoid idolatry yourself.

The apostle Paul wrote the go-to passages on this (here and here) in his letter to the troubled church at Corinth, who were worried about taking part in idol worship by buying (suspiciously reasonably priced) meat from butchers close to temples where idolatrous sacrifices were taking place.

Paul strikes a balance: on the one hand food is a gift from God for our good; on the other taking direct part in idol-worship is disloyal to Jesus and his Body, and effectively a denial of the power of God. So the question is, what actions carry the danger of leading us to worship idols? 

If our conscience is clear and we can enjoy the good music of pagan folk, say, then we should give thanks to God for it. If our background is such that we are vulnerable to superstition and focussing on what is dark and unwholesome, then avoid it. If we find a pagan's take on the beauty of nature and the interconnectedness of all life to be life-affirming and reflecting glory on the creator who made it all that is a good thing. But if we find ourselves tempted to start prioritising natural things over people and over following Jesus, then that is a different matter. 

But really any problem is within ourselves, let's not blame someone else's belief for our flaws. It's a bit like a recovering alcoholic who is following Jesus: drinking beer or wine is likely a really bad idea for them, but for others there is no problem, in moderation. Paul even recommends a little wine for his protégé Timothy on one occasion, to settle his stomach. So do not judge others according to your own weaknesses.

So, my unsurprising conclusion (given that we went to the Autumn Moon Festival, sharing its site with the Mystic Halloween Market, in the first place) is that, so long as we put our trust in Jesus, paganism is nothing to fear. As Jesus' friend John once wrote: "God is love ... there is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear." 

So take the light of Jesus with you, affirm life to its fullest wherever you may go, and may the grace and peace that comes from God the Father and from Jesus Christ be yours in all that you do in the days and weeks to come.

Friday 11 December 2015

Autumn Moon Bands Day 2

Lyriel - Highlight of the festival
Back to Hamelin for the second day of the Autumn Moon music festival, not to mention the Mystic Halloween Market.

After getting up at 8am (groan!) for breakfast, we spent an enjoyable morning wandering around Hameln - a very pleasant little town, slightly touristy, the central area very close within the old town walls, with plenty of interesting things to see. Then, fortified by bread on a stick from the market, off to Sumpfblume  to start another day's music.

First up were Diabulus in Musica, a band who weren't in the original advertised lineup, I think, so we had no idea what they'd be like. As it turned out they were surprisingly good: a Spanish band playing orchestral-style FFM with a very pregnant-looking lead singer. Quite how she could sing like that with what must have been a pretty immobile diaphragm is a mystery. But they were an unexpected treat. The video clip above is very short and has poor sound, but it does nicely illustrate the singer's condition. Like many bands I enjoy, their sound includes light and dark, heavy and soft. If you click on the band name above and scroll to the bottom of the page there are some videos which give a better idea of their music.

After them we stayed in the Sumpfblume for Ravenscry, another FFM band from the Mediterranean, this time from Italy. They'd seemed quite reasonable on the preview video, but live they were painful. Bass and twin guitars all turned up to 11 on both fuzz and volume. No colour, no inventiveness and no sign of originality in the first two songs, so we left them to it.

Across to the Rattenfängerhalle for some supposed cyberpunk-rock, with Dope Stars Inc. Actually fairly generic punk-pop, even emo-pop: heavy on eyeliner and hype, light on originality. Okay, but not exciting.

Staying put, we had a change in style with Clan of Xymox, a kind of gothic OMD: 80's synth-rock, or maybe pomp-rock, brought slightly more up-to-date. Not really my thing but actually done quite well, I thought. In fact, they reminded me that I quite liked OMD back in the day.

I'm starting to get very tired at this point, so it was handly that the next band we wanted to see, Mythemia, were back in the Schiff, where I hoped to get a bit of a sit-down. No chance! Storytelling folk in a mix of German and English, based around myths and legends (hence the name, I guess), so lively and well-played there was no way I could stay sat down at the back. Brilliant, a real treat! If you get a chance to see them yourself, then do.

We had thought about about heading back to the Rattenfängerhalle next to see Leaves Eyes, the one band at the festival that we had seen before: Scandinavian symphonic FFM, with a new album out which had been receiving good reviews. But I was just totally shot, and going nowhere.

So we stayed on the boat and watched Laura Carbone instead; I'm really pleased we did, although I ended up back on my feet again. She's a female indie-rock singer, reminiscent to me of Sheryl Crow in her vocal style. But what really got me going was the band she had with her. They were just fantastic: the drummer and guitarist would start off doing drummy and guitary things but then just veer off in all sorts of strange directions and somehow the bass player would keep the whole thing together in a cohesive and exciting whole. Just wonderful: live music at its best!

Time for a sit-down and a bite to eat before I simply fell over where I stood.

Then to the Rattenfängerhalle for a band I'd been looking forward to: Beyond the Black. In the videos I had previewed they played quality melodic FFM, with hints of folkiness: very enjoyable. In the flesh they were a disappointment. Not too bad but a long way short of what I'd hoped for. Apart from the singer the band just seemed to lack musicality. Nearly all the time they had all the instruments playing basic rhythm and no-one  doing anything vaguely interesting with it. The vocalist was undoubtedly good, and when she played piano she made it interesting, but I don't know what happened to the rest of the band. A bad day at the office, perhaps.

Then off to Sumpfblume for Schwarzer Engel. Male-fronted operatic metal, okay in the preview video, if a little generic. Live they were more sledgehammer metal than operatic, but within that context surprisingly decent. Worth seeing, but not worth going out of one's way for, really.

By now it's close to midnight and I'm getting worried about whether Lyriel will be worth all the effort. After all we'd never seen them in the flesh, and Beyond the Black had just illustrated that bands don't always live up to their recorded promise when they're live. It would have been a long way to travel to see a disappointing band.

I needn't have worried. Half-eleven and the band come onstage, dressed in strange white masks - I've no idea why - and burst into Skin & Bones, the title track from their new album. Straight in with energy and presence, it was great! We were right at the front and their sound was beautifully balanced - cello, violin, guitar, bass, drums and, of course, voices, all coming through with clarity and vigour - and they played with great style and energy.

Lyriel are another band who vary their music, quieter songs amongst the metal, melodies weaving around the rhythms, folk and rock together. But live I really noticed the contrast between the sheer joy of the music and the often sad and heartfelt lyrics.

One advantage of a band with a violinist is that they can lead a dance around the venue - not quite a pied piper, more a dancing fiddler, but great fun nonetheless.

All in all, Lyriel were an absolutely wonderful climax to a brilliant festival, and an amazing way to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.