Tuesday, 29 April 2008
Often in a pastoral situation, someone will tell of a multi-dimensional tragic experience, and yet conclude by saying, ‘But God is in control’, suggesting that this was God’s intention, as if this is part of the blue-print of his plan. Mostly that isn’t the appropriate time for a theological discussion, but inwardly I’m asking, ‘what do you mean by that?’. I believe that God is sovereign, but that means that I still pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
Continuing with the improvisation theme of the last blog, and picking up on Glen’s helpful comment, I have played with understanding God’s interaction with his world and with human beings as an improviser, ‘the divine improviser’.
The string quartet playing one of the Bartok string quartets, is determined by the notes, and although there is some room for interpretation, Bartok was very exact about every detail. If one of the quartet plays any other note, it is wrong! There’s no wiggle room here. To move from string quartet to piano, there are 89 keys on a piano, but no delete key. However, for the improvising jazz musician, within the givens of harmony, rhythm, and some continuity with what has preceded, there are no wrong notes. Every ‘wrong’ note can be turned into a passing note, and incorporated into the music that’s emerging. This isn’t to say that evil isn’t evil after all, but is made good. Evil remains evil, but God is not deterred by it. ‘In all things, God works for good …’
This is a variation on the weaver who doesn’t unpick the mistake in the carpet, but subtly alters the design to accommodate the new situation. It’s a risky and a vulnerable enterprise. But surely that's the nature of God’s sovereignty as testified to in Scripture. And while there is plenty of risk in playing one of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, it is of a different kind to the person who is conceiving and performing the music at the same time.
Saturday, 26 April 2008
Improvisation isn't immediately associated with the bassoon - although there are some interesting practitioners and Paul Hanson is noteworthy - and this is something I've never developed. However, I am fascinated by improvisation for two reasons.
Firstly, because of the inherent nature of improvisation. As a jazz musician improvises, they 'conceive and perform music simultaneously', which is what improvisation is. Good players are well schooled in jazz scales and chords, they will have learned their craft through listening and much practice; they will have evolved a style which is their own while owing much to the tradition; but when it happens and they improvise, all of this is drawn upon to produce something unique, in the moment, never to be captured in that way again.
The second reason that I'm fascinated by improvisation is because improvisation, although essentially an expression of freedom, is dependent on the interplay between the given and the unpredictable, between consistency and openness, between constraint and freedom.
In these ways, jazz makes connections with Christian faith. As God's people we are new creations and creativity is a mark of God's Spirit among us. But as we pursue the new thing, we do so with a sense of continuity, recognising the tradition, whether it is the tradition that goes back to the original 'deposit of teaching', or those good things that have substantially shaped the life of the particular part of the church to which we belong. In jazz, improvisation is new, but it isn't new new. It's new that has emerged from the old. It doesn't happen as though nothing has gone before. It pushes the boundaries, it's creative, it opens up new horizons, but it does so with respect for the past.
This has a relation especially to worship. Within the Baptist tradition, devotion and openness to the Spirit, together with an attention to Scripture, have been two important elements of worship. Historically there hasn't been wide-spread use of set liturgies, although there has been structure and movement within the best practice of the so-called 'hymn-prayer sandwich', with its rhythm of revelation and response. We - and I've been part of this - have moved more to the 'charismatic casserole' in which at its worst there is neither structure nor movement. Freedom, a core value, and an activity of the Spirit, 2 Cor. 3.17, has in the process sometimes become stifled. We need the given of structure; not as a prison cage, but as a climbing frame. Where this is present, then there is the genuine possibility for freedom. In jazz, improvisation is dependent upon a musical structure which is coherent and directional. It shouldn't imprison but provide a framework upon which to explore. Without it, the player isn't given the means to be free. With it, new possibilities abound.
Extending this to living the Christian life, which is also part of our worship, Jeremy Begbie (from whom a lot of this originates) speaks of the common misunderstanding that the Holy Spirit frees us from limits. In fact the reverse is true, for when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives we find that it is the limits that free us. In jazz, the musician needs the given-ness of the harmonic and rhythmic structure in order to be free. Broadening this beyond jazz there is some fascinating material on how composers go about their craft and how constraints work as a huge asset, providing necessary boundaries to a creative process which otherwise would be unmanageable.
How do we live in a way that is faithful to Scripture when Scripture gives us nothing like detailed instructions for everyday life in the early twenty-first century? Extending the analogy to a different art form, I've been struck by Tom Wrights understanding of Scripture in terms of a Shakespearean play whose fifth act had been lost. Very briefly, our living as Christians is a call to improvise the fifth act in the light of the preceding four acts, having thoroughly immersed ourselves in all that has gone before. Tom Wright proposes that the first act of this play is Creation, the second the Fall, the third the story of Israel, and the fourth the story of Jesus. The first scene in the fifth act is provided by the rest of the New Testament, and it is at this point that we join the story, acknowledging the many others who have joined before us. The important point is that we are not free to improvise as we like. We live under the 'authority' of the story. The improvisation is dependent upon being thoroughly schooled in the script as well as the traditions of interpreting the script, so that we begin to act from habit in ways that are faithful to the script and which are appropriate to the circumstance. This model of improvisation, is the same as in jazz, where freedom is dependent on constraints, openness on consistency, and unpredictability on what is given. We are called to improvise creatively, liberally, encountering fresh perspectives, discovering new possibilities, but with the authority provided by the Scriptures.
Other connections include some fascinating thinking about the 'jazz factor' in an understanding of the flexible order of creation, that is the spontaneous element in the world and in human life. There are some strong jazz resonances with the act of preaching, and I've come across some interesting reflections on leadership seen through a jazz paradigm. But enough for now - I'll save those for another occasion.
Friday, 25 April 2008
Whenever I go to Oxford, if possible, I get there early enough to taste the delights of Maison Blanc. This authentic French boulangerie-Pâtisserie-Chocolaterie was created in 1979 by Raymond and Jenny Blanc, owners of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons restaurant. As you might expect they have a large choice of speciality breads, viennoiseries, savouries, and of course the famous patisseries. I'm fairly unadventurous and go for the almond croissant and black coffee, but what an almond croissant and black coffee!
The pastry is soft, on the cusp of melt-in-the-mouth with just a hint of crispness, the crème suffuses the whole, the almonds are plentiful and just the right side of burnt ... it's one of those eternal moments. And as I recounted the experience later on in the day, I came to the conclusion it was almost worth going to Oxford just for another moment.
Wednesday, 23 April 2008
Never heard of this amazing ensemble? Check them out on YouTube here. But be warned, virtuoso they are, historically informed, well that's another matter. They are well described as 'unbound by historical preconceptions'. Suffice to say that this is not for the purist.
Tuesday, 22 April 2008
Cid is a man with huge energy and vision, and it was a pleasure hearing him talk about cafe church. The vision is a big one, 'One day we will see a cafechurch on every high street in every town, village and city.' And the network which Cid is directing exists to resource and support churches across the UK to run a cafechurch in their community. He says, 'We provide a ready-made opportunity for churches to bring communitites into the relaxed high-street cafe atmosphere to deal with issues from a faith perspective.'
So far there is a strong link with Costa Coffee who are very keen to host communities and see this style of cafe church as an ideal way to do this. But discussions are beginning with Starbucks. To read more about the concept go to cafechurch network.
One phrase Cid used that I found particuarly appealing was from Stuart Murray, who says that by connecting and engaging with the community where the community already meets, the church is creatively 'missional to incarnate the gospel winsomely.' I liked that.
Friday, 18 April 2008
Living Wittily, is a frequent source of stimulation and nourishment. I've appreciated his recent reflections on Bonhoeffer and discipleship, especially his wondering whether discipleship has lost something of its edge through programmatic approaches. As the minister of a local church, it concerned me that our discipleship courses could easily give the impression that we had ticked this particular box called 'discipleship' - 'done that, what next?', or that discipleship might be reduced to a few core tasks that we needed to undertake with some regularity depending upon our commitment.
When my Christian faith was awakened in my mid-twenties, I read David Watson's 'Discipleship', (which continues to challenge) and through this had my first encounter with Bonhoeffer. 'When Christ calls a man [or woman], he bids him come and die.' This, of course, is nothing more than the teaching of Jesus, repeated and reinforced throughout the gospels. Living Wittily, points out that, 'For Bonhoeffer a programmatic approach to Christian training that uses the term 'discipleship' is in danger of trivialising the passion and suffering that gives discipleship its essential Christ-like appearance and Christ-centred focus. "Whoever wishes to carry in his person the transfigured image of Jesus must already have carried in the world the battered image of the One who was Crucified."'
I was at Berkhamsted the other evening, speaking with the deacons about the role of a deacon, and my starting point was that a deacon is first of all a disciple. We may acquire many titles, but the only one that remains is 'Disciple of Christ'. I quoted John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who spoke these words at his inauguration, 'In the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is often called a Rabbi – and his followers, his disciples. A disciple was someone who had chosen to be with his rabbi as much as possible in order to learn everything he could from him and not just during formal teaching times. A disciple was with his Rabbi all the time. This commitment of the disciple to stay in the presence of the rabbi he followed, was beautifully expressed in the blessing: "May you always be covered by the dust of your rabbi." That is: may you follow him so closely that the dust his feet kicks up covers your clothing and face! Very much like a baby duckling whose image of its mother has been imprinted on its brain, disciples never wanted to let the rabbi out of their sight.'
I'm excited by a strap line that we as a denomination are using, 'Encouraging missionary disciples', and also the emphasis that LICC place upon 'whole-life discipleship'. The fact is that however exciting it might sound, actually it's very hard work, and unlike the courses we run-out (which may be hugely helpful in terms of an introduction) needs to be for the long-haul, wherever he might lead.
May you always be covered by the dust.
Tuesday, 15 April 2008
Ivor was a favourite with our boys - we had it on video - although Thomas the Tank Engine, a far more sophisticated production, had the edge. However, therein was the charm of Oliver Postgate, the creator. He was responsible for other programmes Noggin the Nog, Pogles' Wood, Pingwings and Clangers.
The particular interest I have in Ivor, and indeed the other programmes, is on account of the composer, Vernon Elliot, who was the contra-bassoonist in the Philharmonia Orchestra, which then became the New Philharmonia Orchestra. In between playing and teaching, and some conducting, he wrote lovely quirky music for these programmes. The theme for Ivor is very playful, but in keeping with the story-line, as well as the voice that narrates it, the music has an extraordinary melancholy. Apparently it was recorded in a thatched cottage in the Home Counties, probably in November.
If you are a total anorak you can go to a dedicated website at Ivor the Engine, not that I would know. I know someone who visited it.
Monday, 14 April 2008
On Sunday I was at Bromham Baptist Church. Bromham is a sizeable village on the outskirts of Bedford, and the church, located in a spacious, attractive, modern building, is a large, vibrant, serving, growing community. I'm leading a church weekend in a few weeks time so I was being introduced to the church by preaching at a Sunday service – I trust there won't be too many cancellations as a result!
The worship, led by Mark Hatto, who is doing an excellent job as the church's minister, was contemporary employing a large group of musicians. During the service there was opportunity to share testimony and a number of people contributed.
One person talked about their recent experience of being vulnerable; another, of how God had spoken to her on the way to work, providing assurance; and someone else spoke about an event held on Saturday, as part of Hope '08. A sizeable group from the church washed cars and provided the drivers with home-made cakes and tea and coffee – all free! And 109 cars were washed!! It was fascinating to hear of the reactions of people in the village. And this wasn't an isolated event. The church has purchased some quality Christian books for the local library; they've planned community litter picks; and they're providing flower baskets for the village. All this is part of a deep desire to bless the community and communicate Christian hope.
It was really good being with this part of Christ's body, and I'm looking forward to the weekend – all I have to do now is prepare the material for five sessions!
Sunday, 13 April 2008
Coming to terms with this was an instructive experience. Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book, 'Death and Dying', speaks of five stages of loss, which applies to death itself, the experience of dying, but also other losses. The first is denial and my immediate reaction to the injury was, 'what injury?' and I just kept on taking the ibuprofen. The second stage is anger, and when I recognised that it wasn't going to just mend, I got cross, after all, 'I'm in a pressurised job and this is my stress-buster; it's the one thing that I do for myself, blah, blah, blah'. I then decided to swim 'for a season', but this didn't work as I can't do with getting wet. And then I bought a bike with a view to transferring my obsession, temporarily. This is the third stage – bargaining. Eventually, I experienced depression, the fourth stage. Don't misunderstand me, this wasn't the sort of depression that I've experienced in those people among whom I've ministered, but there was a sadness, which was reinforced when I realised I really wasn't going to run again, and even now when I'm out on the bike and encounter runners, and particularly on London Marathon Sunday. The final stage is acceptance, which isn't about saying that it's fine but acknowledging that it is a loss and coming to terms with it.
Just in case you feel sorry for me, please don't! In the providence of God, I wouldn't have been able to sustain the sort of running that I was doing even if I'd remained injury-free. But every now and again, and especially today, I wouldn't mind just a little jog! Maybe I'll post a blog on long-distance running as a metaphor for spiritual pilgrimage.
Saturday, 12 April 2008
'Live' is a double CD of two and a half hours duration and twelve tracks, and includes standards such as 'The Very Thought of You' and 'More Than You Know', together with more contemporary numbers such as his take on Noel Gallagher's 'Wonderwall'.
Mehldau is something else. One review of this album described it as 'state-of-the-art contemporary jazz piano' and I find him really impressive. As I was listening to 'The Very Thought of You' which develops into an extended piano solo, it struck me that his playing is yet another example of music that transcends the labels of 'jazz' and 'classical' or 'serious'. He combines an inventive mind which creates fresh sounds with an awareness of the architecture, a profound musicianship drawing on a broad range of styles, a breathtaking sensitivity, all gathered together with an awesome technique. This is undoubtedly jazz, but it's more than just jazz. It was recorded at New York's Village Vanguard, but it might just have been the Wigmore Hall.
When I was at music college there was a real snobbishness about jazz. When tuning up, if an 'a' was played that was a bit dodgy, the remark was, 'close enough for jazz'. Sometimes it came from those who were able to play in that genre but could also play 'straight'. Not many of us were able to make the transition from one to the other. Exceptions were Guy Barker, Martin Koch, Andy Findon, and Dave Heath. And it's been really good to get to know Sarah Watts again - visit Razzamajazz - who is able to move effortlessly between a number of genres.
I'm glad that things have changed. As for me, I'm still working on it!
Wednesday, 9 April 2008
I returned today from the monthly National Settlement Team (NST) meeting. The food at Charney Manor was predictably excellent and on this occasion, crisp, bright but misty mornings provided an opportunity for a brisk walk to burn off something of the bread and butter pudding, treacle tart, rice pudding … If there was the usual and welcome glut of puddings there was also a glut of 'The Road to Emmaus'. I need to add quickly that this was no bad thing, on the contrary!
I blogged on this as part of the Easter Group blog at Hopeful Imagination back on 27 March. On Sunday, Stuart Dennis preached on it at his final service. On Monday in our opening prayers, Paul Goodliff, who'd read Sally Vickers, 'The Other Side of You', whilst on holiday in Tuscany, and has painted an intriguing picture with the title 'Who is the third who walks always beside you?' (quoting T.S Eliot, The Waste Land), spoke on it. And then Ernie Whalley, leading our worship on Tuesday morning, also chose this passage. Ernie picked up on a number of phrases but the one that really connected was 'But we had hoped that he would redeem Israel'. He continued by relating a number of stories of situations where seeming hopelessness has been turned round.
He spoke with personal experience about Northern Ireland and the unbelievable change which has come about in a province where sworn enemies in Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley have been partners in a new era of power sharing.
And Ernie went on to recount a recent trip to Dresden where he visited the Frauenkirche. This church, along with much of Dresden, was completely destroyed during the fire-bombing in the Second World War but reconstructed and completed in 2005 with money coming from international as well as German sources. Like the cathedral in Coventry it stands as a symbol of reconciliation, and what was particularly moving was to look at an image of the original cross which was discovered under the rubble and now stands within the church, slightly bent and misshaped but indomitable.
As we reflected openly together before praying, other moving stories were told. One of the gifts of being in this group is that quite often someone will say something which comes out effortlessly but is pure gold. My colleague Pat Took, who frequently does this, said something like, 'hope gives us grace to continue hoping in grace-less places'.
Referring back to a previous blog, (Hymns for the People, 15 March) I need to add that we sang some fine hymns: 'Praise with joy the world's Creator' from the Iona Community, and 'We shall go out with hope of Resurrection' to the Irish tune, the Londonderry Air.
Concluding with a blessing from Frauenkirche, Dresden, made it a meaningful encounter with each other and the one who walks always beside us:
May people and the angels always want to be close to you and care for you;
May the burden and bitterness of life serve to help you to grow;
May you be granted much joy, courage and hope,
May God hold you in His hands,
To protect you and bless you this day and always.
Sunday, 6 April 2008
The 'bring and share lunch' following was to be the occasion when speeches were made, but before communion a multitude of people came forward to pray for Stuart and lay hands on him. It seemed appropriate to sum up the many prayers offered with the Blessing from the Northumbria Community Morning Prayer: The peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may lead you ...'
I'm going to miss Stuart. I've found him stimulating theologically and spiritually - there aren't many Baptists who've done the 30 Day Ignatian Exercises! I've been touched by his warmth and transparency and enriched by his fellowship and friendship. I admire greatly his openness and courage to follow where God leads despite the considerable personal cost. And I've enjoyed our breakfasts together at Morrisons. It's no exaggeration to say that in Stuart I've encountered Jesus.
Stuart has started a blog, Stuart's Nicaraguan Blog - do visit him - and we're going to keep in touch in cyberspace.
Saturday, 5 April 2008
Interestingly, I write about 'seeing' opera, whereas I would write about hearing an orchestra or chamber ensemble, or jazz group. There was plenty to see last night, but the hearing remains for me the main attraction. And especially when it's Mozart. Michael Mayne writing about Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, says, 'To listen to the adagio of the Clarinet Concerto, for example, is to perceive something wholly other: the sound of an infinite which transcends us and for which "beauty" is no description ... To describe such experience and revelation of transcendence, religious language still needs the word God'. And Hans Kung writes how the music of Mozart reveals 'how wafer-thin is the boundary between the human and the divine.'
When it comes to Mozart, Barth, arguably the greatest theological mind of the last century, had a huge amount to say. 'My very first hearing of great music – I must have been about five or six years old – was of Mozart. I can still recall: my father struck a few measures of 'The Magic Flute' ("Tamino mine, oh what happiness") on the piano. They went through me and into me, I don't know how, and I thought, 'That's it!' Probably his most quoted words on Mozart are, 'it may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together "en famille", they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.'
It's no exaggeration to say that Mozart was his fixation and he believed deserved a central place in theology, especially the doctrine of creation and eschatology. For Barth, Mozart's music embodies and gives voice to creation praising God, and creation precisely as created – limited and finite.
In Eberhard Busch's biography of Barth, he wrote, 'Barth's objection to Johann Sebastian Bach, otherwise so loved by theologians, was his all too deliberate, all too artificial "desire to preach", while Mozart attracted him because he was free from such intentions and simply played.' And it is on Mozart's freedom as an analogy of the freedom that the gospel brings that Barth writes with such insight. 'From the beginning, he moved freely within the limits of the musical laws of his time, and then later ever more freely. But he did not revolt against these laws; he did not break them. He sought to be himself and yet achieved his greatness precisely in being himself while observing the conventions which he imposed upon himself.'
'Mozart's music always sounds unburdened, effortless, and light. This is why it unburdens, releases, and liberates us. He plays and never stops playing, and the listener who does not himself sway and soar, who does not play along with him, is not truly hearing him. But neither is one truly hearing him if he is heard as a musician of mere facile gaiety. Behind his play there is an iron zeal … I found it happily expressed recently, "His gravity soars and his lightness is infinitely grave."'
Last night as Pamina sang, 'Tamino mine, oh what happiness', as I became aware of the 'wafer-thin boundary', I gave a conscious nod to Karl.
Thursday, 3 April 2008
Speaking to another of the deacons, his great interest is bird-watching – although he made it very clear that he isn't a 'twitcher' along with the reason behind this. He became both impassioned and poetic talking about the red kites at Fineshade Wood, near Rockingham Forest, where in 2007 there were over 80 pairs bred in the area, rearing over 100 young. He offered to give me a guided tour, something I'd love to take up.
The newly appointed secretary, a keen cyclist, introduced me to the world of recumbent cycling where you recline on a comfortable supportive seat instead of perched on a saddle. I've seen tricycles but apparently they come as bicycles as well, and I'm assured that they are more stable than the conventional variety, that vision is better, and that they put less stress on wrists and back and enable better peddling power especially up hill.
A light lunch of soup and bread, followed by Simnel Cake and ice-cream – all home-made (ministry is so tough) – was in the house of a couple who made this as well. They designed it and, with some help, constructed it, moving in last July. It is beautiful. And conversation over lunch was wide ranging but included something of their foreign travel which they do regularly but fairly inexpensively.
Incidentally, the meeting which was the purpose of my visit was productive and they found it helpful. But I reflected as I drove away how good it was to meet with such interesting and interested people, whose experience of God has enlarged and enriched their engagement with life, which is what it should do, 'life in all its fullness'.