Monday, 29 November 2010

Let Handel handle it........

An incredible coming together has happened today, the perfect combination. No, I'm not talking about Sherringham & Shearer in Euro 96, nor am I so stirred by Hall & Oates greatest album, Private Eyes. Not even the humble fishfinger & white bread sandwich on a cold winters day reaches such heights of greatness.

Almost 270 years ago, George-Frideric Handel had his head filled with a heavenly melody & his old King James Version of the bible open. Within just 24 days, depressed & in significant debt, Handel's Messiah was conceived. This coming together of music & scripture is the genius that leaves me more breathless & watery eyed than my frozen bike ride to the office this morning!

Preparing for yet another Christmas Celebration, I spent a few minutes looking through the old King James version of Isaiah 9.2-7. It's no exaggeration to say that for a short time I was consumed by the beauty & power of these familiar words set to such music. What I had thought would be a quick administrative exercise became a moment of retreat, an escape into some secret sanctuary - where time slowed & truths sunk in. A moment from which I no longer dared to rush on.

The rich, ponderous baritone of 'The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light', rises with expectation into the swelling anthem that is 'For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.' What had been so familiar, another Christmas build up with a shrug, suddenly reached into my guts & made the whole story matter in a fresh way.

Try it for size - the power of these prophetic words, allied with the majesty of the music. Close your eyes & the entire drama of the human condition is played out. This mega narrative of desperately broken humanity, despair, hope, suffering, death & fulfilment. It all falls into place, we begin to see ourselves immersed in this story again, it's our story, His story. That the full might & drama of human redemption can be packed into mere music & lyrics is nearly as astonishing as the message itself - that God Himself should take on our flawed form, that the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father should also be the one who bears our grief & carries our sorrows.

Kirsty McColl & the Pogues was another pretty good Christmas combination, but I think I'll keep that quiet on the playlist for another couple of weeks whilst I let Handel handle my Christmas prep in his own special way.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Drinking wine through your nose is an antedote to dead religion

In the far north of Germany, a bitterly cold day in those flat, wind swept fields, we were gathered in the upper room of a large wooden house for communion. Seated in groups, cross legged on the floor, large ceramic bowls were filled to the brim with good German wine & handed out.

Being the polite English guests, & not being sure of the custom here, we allowed our German hosts to drink deep first. To our amazement, they lifted the bowl high, their faces disappearing into the rim as they drank straight from the vessel. Smacking their lips, the bowl is passed along - the atmosphere serious, sober, no noise - this was a holy moment, Germans were meditating on truth & nodding serenely to one another as they passed the bowl.

Finally, the bowl came our way, by now, drained almost empty having been passed right around the room. John sits oppposite me, lifts the bowl in accordance with all he has observed, & starts to drink, tipping the bowl & his head back further & further in order to get any liquid from the dimishing supply. Then, pulling away with a grin, he holds the bowl out to me, his long nose dripping red droplets of wine back into the bowl!

Worse still, the remaining slurry of wine is contaminated with more than just the contents of John's nose - it is thick with a slick of German lipstick. Without a thought for our Lord Jesus, & aware that the whole room is looking at me, I knock it back, trying to look as religious as possible - my attempt rendered futile as John throws back his head again & begins to laugh, contageously, the the mirth in this mad moment releasing tension. Those poor German believers, they thought we were getting filled with the Holy Spirit & began thanking the Lord!

Wherever I've been in the world, I've seen communion done in funny ways, strange ways, mystical ways & dead religious ways. I've also taken part in some incredible moments of deep intimacy that have left me hungry & thirsty for more.
As a part of our 21st Century Worshippers series, I'm taking a fresh look at how communion fits in our busy, contempory churches. It is, when you stop & think, a strange religious ceremony that is baffling to post moderns. Even Jesus seemed to frighten people off in John's account, when He speaks of eating His flesh & drinking His blood. What is this stuff? You Christians want to ban Halloween, yet you get up to this behind closed doors!

How do we combine the ancient & modern in modern worship, without being unbiblical or without drifting into unthinking, empty religious practise? How do we avoid those well intended moments when we pass bread & wine along the line, whispering pious words that fail to resonate with faith or meaning - just hoping to get the form of words right, doing what we've always done, surely missing the point in our futility? Devoid of joy, far from celebration, little sense of transendence!

How has it come to this? Or consider that communion has been the breeding ground for all kinds of division, disunity & dodgy theology over the centuries – the very opposite of what Jesus intended when He simply sat around a table & broke bread with his friends.
Isn’t it time we started thinking clearly about this aspect of our worship? Time to rediscover the richness of sharing Christ together in this way, time to let go of anything which is familiar but ultimately unhelpful? Isn't it time to go on an adventure with John the Nose Dipper of Schleswig-Holstein.....who knows, to this day maybe all the Germans now dip their noses in the drink & laugh?

Friday, 5 November 2010

Bonfires, Mary & the power of a laid down life

Fifty years before Fawkes, England was already lit up by bonfires. During the last 4 years of Queen Mary’s reign 288 people were burned at the stake for their biblical faith, including women and some children. Countless others died in prison. Foxe writes with his usual gusto -‘the fagots never ceased to blaze whilst Mary was alive.’
41 perished in the flames from Sussex, including 17 from Lewes alone – Much of the strong bonfire tradition & feeling in these parts goes back here rather than to 1605 & the Gunpowder Plot.

Bloody Mary of course gets the blame. Her zeal in persecuting the new breed of English Protestants now famous. She perhaps deserves our sympathy though- As the disowned daughter of her monster father, Henry VIII, she grew up in terrible fear & conflict. Mary watched the outrageous treatment of her mother & found her own estrangement from the man who should have protected her the most, her father & her King. No wonder the poor girl had issues! Her suppressed rage against the English & their protestant cause came with real fury when she finally got to power. In our modern contexts, Psychologists would surely see these Martyrs as classic serial killer revenge cases at the hands of a Psychotic, passive aggresive maniac.

Leaving aside Mary's complex issues, what of the Martyrs? Bishops Latimer & Ridley said it best as they faced the fires. Upon seeing his friend & fellow Martyr failing to catch light, Latimer was heard to encourage, ‘Play the man Master Ridley! We shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust shall never be put out!’
It hasn’t been. Mary was soon dead. Though there have been dark times since, from the Armada, from Fawkes & his conspiritors, from rationalism, from luke warm unbelieving churches, Darwin, wars & scandals - there has been a candle in every generation of genuine faith and true christian community.

England again is under threat in our generation. In spite of what the press tell us, our fight is no longer against an oppressive regime or bands of conspiring terrorists who seek to murder parliament - it never was. Nor is our fight more about English nationalism or identity, even though both issues remain up for grabs.

No, our fight is for a deeper set of defining values than any of these things. If we value any sense of Englishness, our responsibility to our people is to pick up an historic burden, to live, work, play & even die for the gospel, that many in the darkness of our day may come into the light. This candle lit by the Martyrs is ours to hold high & keep ablaze as we live out a radical & relevant faith today for the sake of God’s glory in our nation.
If you or I will not carry this torch, then who else will? Perhaps when we think of it in these terms, we're not that different from Fawkes & his gang after all? We carry a torch of love rather than their gunpowder barrels of hatred, but a laid down life for a cause, for THE cause is the most powerful weapon.