Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Top Ten 2017

These are the albums I've most enjoyed listening to in 2017:

A Tribute To Michael Been: The Call featuring Robert Levon Been - Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motor Cycle Club pays tribute to his late father's music with an unforgettable live performance leading his father's legendary band The Call. After The Call disbanded Michael Been served as sound engineer for his son Robert's band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But while working with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at the 2010 Pukkelpop festival in Belgium, Been suffered a heart attack and passed away backstage. Now The Call have captured an incredible live performance, for the first time in over 20 years, with Robert taking over his father's role. He joined Musick, Ferrier, and keyboardist Jim Goodwin at The Troubadour in Los Angeles for this historic and electrifying event. For Robert - who grew up going out on the road with The Call anytime he had a break from school - the performance offered the chance to honour his musical legacy and perform nearly a dozen and a half songs from the band's esteemed catalog. And for the original members, the show allowed the opportunity to honour their friend and their own musical legacy while revisiting a bond they thought was gone forever.

Specter At The Feast: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - The 12 tracks on Specter At The Feast were 'written after the sudden death of their sound engineer, Michael Been – father of bassist Robert Been – and are heavy with loss. Some Kind of Ghost's gospel-voodoo prayer, which has Robert Been vowing, "Sweet Lord, I'm coming home", Been's lost-in-the-woods vocal on Fire Walker, and the funereal organ drone and layered vocals that rise and fall tidally through Sometimes the Light. The dreamy eight-minute finale, Lose Yourself, is a kind of coming-to-terms hymn – a satisfying ending to a fine record.'

Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol.13 / 1979-1983: Bob Dylan - 'Trouble No More practically bulges with irresistibly thrilling performances. For all its other qualities, Dylan’s music has never been particularly funky. That, however, is the only appropriate term to describe the colossal grooves cooked up by bassist Tim Drummond (who used to play with James Brown) and drummer Jim Keltner, certainly the greatest rhythm section this side of The Band’s Levon Help and Rick Danko that Dylan ever shared a stage with. It’s almost impossible to connect the opening double-KO of 1979 live versions of “Slow Train” – lifted ever higher by guitarist Fred Tackett’s stinging riffs - and “Gotta Serve Somebody” with their fine if overly polite studio counterparts on the MOR-hued Slow Train Coming album, nevermind the road-weary, ramshackle vibes of the other two records in Dylan’s Gospel trilogy, Saved (1980) and 1981’s Shot of Love.'

Short Stories Vol 1: Ricky Ross - 'The album, which contains new songs, voice-and-piano versions of two of his greatest works, Raintown and Wages Day, and a lovely take on Carole King’s Goin’ Back, was recorded in Hamburg, with strings added in Glasgow. It continues a resurgence of activity by the band he put together in December 1985. Producer Paul Savage, who worked on Deacon Blue’s last three albums and on Short Stories Vol 1, says, "The thing I always love about what he does, apart from his well-observed lyrics, is the way he chooses a chord and a shift in gears – he's got that down more than most people. Much of the old-fashioned idea of a song is beginning to disappear – there's not a lot of great classic songwriting any more. "You can listen to Ricky's music and the chords, and they'll move you just by emotion, just by the right chord change. There's a drive about him but there's also the talent. Sometimes there's either one or the other but the great artists I have worked with have both." Ross is an under-rated singer as well, says Savage. "I think he doesn't get the recognition he deserves: some of the new songs on the album are incredible."

Cold Snap: Anthony D'Amato - ''Cold Snap' explores the schisms between perception and reality, projection and truth, who we are and how we're seen. Sometimes it's on an internal level—the progressively ominous images of soaring album opener "Oh My Goodness" hint at the costs of living up to (and falling short of) expectations—but elsewhere it's external and political, as on the too-big-to-fail anthem of "Blue Blooded" or the eerie blues of "If You're Gonna Build A Wall," written in the shadow of the current election season but hinting at everything from Ferguson to Flint."What happens when our visions of ourselves or the projections we make onto others start to crack under the weight of reality?" D'Amato asks. "That's the idea behind the album cover, where you're looking into this mirror, but the image is distorted. The fissures between truth and perception are starting to form, and maybe just for a second, you can glimpse both simultaneously. All of the songs on this album take place in moments of realization like that.".'

Songs of Experience: U2 - 'The mounting effect is a charge of dynamic moods and a still-certain mission – the choral-army light of "Get Out of Your Own Way," speared with rusted-blade guitar bravura; the seesaw of punchy-funk riffing and breakneck vocal glory in "Red Flag Day" – set in candid summations of what's been gained, lost and left undone. "American Soul" is a metallic-guitar letter of gratitude to the roots and ideals that drove U2 forward (with a warning-sermon cameo by Kendrick Lamar). Other songs face home and the band's debt to family and fidelity. "I will win and call it losing," Bono pleads through the icy-guitar rain of "Landlady," "if the prize is not for you." Songs of Experience ends like it opens – in a hush; "13 (There Is a Light)" also circles back to Innocence, reprising the chorus of that LP's "Song for Someone." But where the latter was Bono's wide-open love song to his wife, Ali, "13" renews his commitment to the purpose and sustenance he still finds in music, songwriting and performance. If experience has taught U2 anything, it is that a great new song can still feel like the first day of the rest of your life. Songs of Experience is that innocence renewed.'

Lovely Creatures: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - 'Instead of King Arthur or Odysseus, we have Cave, a chain-smoking, gunslinging poet who sees God in the eyes of a woman and bowls of soup; who stalks through Berlin boudoirs with heroin in his veins, daring the devil to take him by the Red Right Hand only to dodge his scythe like a stuntman; who sifts through puddles of blood and piles of money in search of meaning, only to be greeted by the void. “The spiritual quest has many faces–religion, art, drugs, work, money, sex,” he mused, addressing 1998 Vienna Poetry Festival, “but rarely does the search serve God so directly, and rarely are the rewards so great in doing.” *Lovely Creatures presents the definitive display of these anguished labors and sweet fruits they bore over twenty years—an unmovable feast, immortalized.'

The Order of Time: Valerie June - 'Valerie June’s acclaimed 2013 debut, Pushin’ Against a Stone, was a crucial stage in a meteoric rise from selling home recordings from a car to supporting the Rolling Stones and winning a fan in Michelle Obama. Her second album finds the Tennessean again blending genres – folk, classic pop, soul and Appalachian bluegrass – into a cohesive whole, thanks to her top-notch songwriting and sublime musicianship. With her sultry ache of a voice, she could presumably sing the phone book and make it quake with feeling. These are further tales of long lonely roads and men who done wrong, and this set adds African rhythms, spacey soundscapes and guest vocals from Norah Jones. The songs run the gamut from Love You Once Made’s organ-blasting bluesy soul and With You’s Nick Drakeish strings to Shakedown, which is like a country Can. It’s an album bursting with standouts, none more so than Astral Plane, which finds June full of childlike wonderment amid a gloriously ethereal atmosphere reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Fantastic stuff.'

Soul Of A WomanSharon Jones & The Dap Kings - 'Jones’s final album, released roughly a year after her death, is a throwback in all the right ways: a vintage soul record that thumbs its nose at the 21st century in favour of era-specific methods and concerns. Recorded on eight-track, with frisky instrumentalists called, for example, Fernando “Bugaloo” Velez, and taking up just a lean, mean 36 minutes of your time, it is not really one of those albums in which a feted – or fated – singer mulls their approaching end, but a record replete with drama and succour that wrestles with the messy business of being alive. The first half of Soul of a Woman skews hard towards upbeat songs, such as the hand-clapping Rumors, full of backing vocalists gossiping away. The second half pulls in organs, forgiveness, orchestral sweeps and, on the self-penned Call on God, the Universal Church of God gospel choir.'

Damage and Joy: The Jesus and Mary Chain – 'Bands aren’t typically reborn when their members are in their mid-fifties. At a certain point, they tend to tread the terrain they staked out for themselves long ago, occasionally coming within eyeshot of sonic frontiers they once fought back or discovering fault lines running beneath their claim that could potentially shake foundations again, but more often than not turning up old stones to find small nuggets embedded in weathered rock. In the case of the Mary Chain, it’s a vast landscape – one that stretches from sweet melodies strangled by barbed wire and drowned in abandoned swimming pools of feedback to glowing, gloomy pop unrolling across an infinite expanse – that left room for later albums like Automatic and Honey’s Dead to roam freely and explore without ever feeling confined. That landscape remains just as vast and beautiful all these years later for Damage and Joy, only the band, song after song, tread the safest possible steps across it.'


Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - Matter of Time.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Bob Dylan: Trouble No More

I’m enjoying listening to Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More, live recordings from 1979 to 1981 commonly known as Dylan’s Gospel period, albeit without agreeing with the Christian Right political views and prophetic interpretation that he adopted at this time. 

This installment of The Bootleg Series has received primarily positive reviews mainly due to the quality of the band Dylan assembled at this time. However, those reviews almost exclusively repeat the lazy stereotype that Dylan’s “Christian trilogy” comprises three albums – Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love – and that ‘by the end of 1981 the Gospel era was over: Dylan's next album, 1983's Infidels … included no overtly religious material,’ being secular and political.

This is a stereotype for several reasons. First, the album that preceded Slow Train Coming and which Dylan was touring when his conversion began, Street Legal, features much Christian imagery from 'Changing of the Guards', which describes a conversion (the changing of the Guards) that could be individual or corporate, to 'Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)', where the central character experiences a new day after leaving town with Marcel and St. John, strong men belittled by doubt, while fighting with the enemy within and following a pathway that leads to the stars.

Next, Infidels includes much overtly religious material. In the political songs on Infidels, for example, there is a strong degree of continuity with lines from 'Slow Train'. ‘Union Sundown’ essentially expands on the Trumpean argument found in the lines: ‘All that foreign oil controlling American soil / Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed / Sheiks walkin’ around like kings / Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings / Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and Paris.’ ‘Man of Peace’ is essentially an explication of the line ‘the enemy I see / Wears a cloak of decency.’

The period from Shot of Love to Infidels was an exceptional period of songwriting in Dylan's career which it is worth exploring in more depth; although many of the best songs from this period didn't make it onto the released albums. What characterised this period of Dylan's songwriting was that his faith came to inform his imagery/lyrics and was integrated into their subject matter instead of forming the subject matter as occurs in the earlier Slow Train Coming/Saved period when his faith was the sole content of the songs. It is a move from preaching back to poetry but this change doesn't mean that his faith is any less sure or apparent in the songs that he writes.

Throughout his career Dylan has written songs that depict the apathy of humanity in the face of the coming apocalypse. From Slow Train Coming onwards he equates the apocalypse with the imminent return of Christ. The return of Christ in judgement is the slow train that is 'comin' up around the bend' and in the face of this apocalypse he calls on human beings to wake up and strengthen the things that remain. Similarly, in ‘The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar’, he sees the apocalypse coming ('Curtain risin' on a new age') but not yet here while the Groom (Christ who awaits his bride, the Church) is still waiting at the altar. In the time that remains he again calls on human beings to arise from our slumber: 'Dead man, dead man / When will you arise? / Cobwebs in your mind / Dust upon your eyes' (‘Dead Man, Dead Man’).

In the light of this thread in Dylan's songs throughout this period, it is consistent to read ‘Jokerman’, from Infidels as another song in this vein; as a song depicting the apathy of humanity in the face of the apocalypse and one which is shot through with apocalyptic imagery drawn from the Book of Revelation. We are the jokermen who laugh, dance and fly but only in the dark of the night (equated with sin and judgement) afraid to come into the revealing light of the Sun/Son.

‘Jokerman’, though, is a greater song that any of those mentioned previously because its depiction of humanity is more nuanced. There is much that is negative: we are born with a snake in both our fists; we rush in where angels fear to tread; our future is full of dread; we are doing no more than keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within; we are going to Sodom and Gomorrah only knowing the law of the jungle (the law of revenge from the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy - 'an eye for an eye'). But these negatives are not the whole story as we also experience freedom, dance to the nightingale tune, fly high, walk on the clouds, and are a friend to the martyr. We have an inherent dignity and beauty to which only the greatest of artists such as Michelangelo can do justice. In 'Jokerman', Dylan captures well the Biblical portrait of humanity as made in the image of God but marred by our rejection of God with our potential for beauty and compassion perverted into a selfish search for self-aggrandisement.

The final verse comes straight from the Book of Revelation and describes the birth of the AntiChrist who will deceive humanity into following him rather than Christ. The accusation and challenge that Dylan puts to us in the final lines of this final verse is that we know exactly what is happening (after all, it has all been prophesied in the Book of Revelation) but we make no response; we are apathetic in the face of the apocalypse. Our lack of response is what is fatal to us because it is only through repentance and turning to Christ that we will be saved from the coming judgement. These final lines are both an accusation and a challenge because, in line with the prophecy of Revelation, Dylan clearly believes that humanity as a whole will be apathetic and unresponsive but they must also be a challenge because, if there is no possibility that any of us will respond, why write the song at all!

In ‘Sweetheart Like You’, also from Infidels, we see the possibility of response through a wonderfully contemporary depiction of Christ's incarnation. The song is written from the perspective of a misogynist male employee in an all-male workplace that is literally a hell of a place in which to work. To be in here requires the doing of some evil deed, having your own harem, playing till your lips bleed. There's only one step down from here and that's the ironically named 'land of permanent bliss.'

Into this perverted and prejudiced environment comes a woman, the sweetheart of the song's title. She is a Christ figure; a sinless figure entering into a world of sin and experiencing abuse and betrayal (is 'that first kiss' a Judas kiss?) from those she encounters and to whom she holds out the possibility of a different kind of existence. Dylan makes his equation of the woman with Christ explicit by quoting directly from Jesus: 'They say in your father's house, there's many mansions' (John 14: 2).

The song's narrator is confused and challenged by her appearance. He wants to dismiss her out of hand and back to his stereotypical role for her - 'You know, a woman like you should be at home / That's where you belong / Watching out for someone who loves you true / Who would never do you wrong' - but he can't simply dismiss her as she is really there in front of him and so he begins to wonder, 'What's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?' All the time he asks that question there is the possibility that he may respond to her presence without abuse or dismissal.

In ‘I and I’ Dylan gives an honest depiction of the difficulties of response (based no doubt on his own inability to keep the moral standards that he seems to have perceived God to have expected of him and which, no doubt, his church at the time expected of him). The central character in this song has taken the untrodden path where the swift don't win the race (Matthew 7: 13 & 14 - 'Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.'). He has looked into justice's beautiful face and yet as we meet him we discover that he has just slept with a strange woman (i.e. he has had sex outside of marriage).

In creation, Dylan sings, we neither honour nor forgive. Instead we take; our nature is the survival of the fittest. When we encounter God, our sinful, selfish human nature encounters the demand for pure perfection - "no man sees my face and lives." 'I and I' is about the difficulty of living between these two poles; of having started out on the untrodden path but then having slipped back. The song is an evocation of the guilt that the protagonist feels; a guilt that forces him to leave the woman, to go out for a walk into the narrow lanes, pushing himself along the darkest part of the road to get himself back on track and then hearing the accepting, forgiving words of Christ in his heart, 'I made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot.'

‘I and I’ is again set in the context of the apocalypse: 'the world could come to an end tonight.' The protagonist is responding in the face of the apocalypse. Even though he has sinned he is leaving that sin behind, pushing himself along the road and listening to Christ in his heart. Another song in which the protangonist becomes aware of the coming apocalypse while being in the wrong place is ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ (originally recorded during the Infidels sessions as ‘Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart’). Here the protagonist grabs his coat because feels the breath of the storm that is the apocalypse. He is in the wrong place with the wrong person having valued the wrong things (lulled to sleep in a town without pity where the water runs deep, it's all been a charade, a big joke that he'll remember to forget) and now, when it may be too late, he is searching for his true love (his 'first love' - see Revelation 2: 4). His issue has been that he could not commit: 'Never could learn to drink that blood / And to call it wine / Never could learn to hold you, love / And to call you mine.' Like the foolish virgins, he may be left outside in the cold when the bridegroom arrives because he was not faithful to his true love at the moment of the second coming (Matthew 25: 1 - 13).

It is not possible to understand these songs without understanding the biblical material on which they draw. Without this, as is the case in much contemporary cultural comment, the work of art is actively misunderstood. This was the case with reviews of Infidels at the time which used ‘Sweetheart Like You’ as an example of Dylan's supposed misogyny. So these reviewers were using a song that actually critiques and undercuts misogyny as an example of misogyny itself and this fundamental misunderstanding was the result of a failure to recognise and understand biblical references and imagery.

Finally, gospel songs continue to feature frequently on subsequent Dylan albums (e.g. ‘They Killed Him’ and ‘Precious Memories’ on Knocked Out Loaded or ‘Death Is Not The End’ and ‘Rank Strangers to Me’ on Down in the Groove) in addition to many of the later classic albums such as Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and Tempest being Gospel albums in essence, both in style and content. The argument that Dylan leaves Gospel music and religious content behind with Shot of Love is, therefore, fallacious.

What does this mean for Dylanologists? Firstly, that many critics fail to recognise and understand biblical references and imagery in both pre-Gospel era Dylan and post. Second, that Dylan recorded, at least, a quartet of Gospel albums, rather than a Trilogy. Third, that the questions and challenges raised by Dylan in his explicitly Gospel period remain relevant throughout his subsequent career and, in the case of his preoccupation with the Apocalypse, throughout his entire career.

Read my co-authored book The Secret Chord for more on this aspect of Dylan’s songwriting.


Bob Dylan - Slow Train.

Windows on the world (377)

London, 2017


Anthony D'Amato - If You're Gonna Build A Wall.

Faith, Mystery & Poetry

Peter Levi stated that Elizabeth Jennings ‘may be the last poet of what used to be called ‘the soul’. 'One strand of her writing vitalizes English mystical verse in which she was steeped.' Her book Every Changing Shape, published in 1961, considers from a Christian poet's perspective how religious or mystical experience informs the imagination.

She avoids terms like 'inspiration', 'ecstasy', sticking to particulars - words, meanings - rather than ideology or theory. A collection of studies of writers and mystics past and present, the book brings literary judgement to bear on a subject neglected in a secular age. Though her first concern is poetry, she draws on prose writers to effect her penetrating explorations.

This collection studies writers and mystics, past and present. The text provides readings of Jennings's chosen authors and offers clues to her own poetry. Writers considered include: St Augustine; St Teresa of Avila; George Herbert; T.S. Eliot; Charles Peguy; Simone Weil; Gerald Manley Hopkins; David Gascoyne; Julian of Norwich; St John of the Cross; Henry Vaughan; Thomas Traherne; Rainer Maria Rilke; Edwin Muir; Hart Crane; and Wallace Stevens.’ David Gascoyne she considered 'the only living English poet, apart from Eliot, in the true mystical tradition.’ ‘If not directly influenced by it,’ she wrote, ‘his work undoubtedly leads back to the visionary poetry of Vaughan, Herbert and Traherne.'

In Christianity and Poetry (1965) she also considered the influence of religion on literature':

'Poets and mystics who have experienced some close, personal but supra-rational awareness of God have always carried away from such moments of illumination an increased subtlety, a profoundly original understanding of human experience and of the apparent contradictions even in the physical universe.’ … ‘Poetry is not rationalization but revelation and what is healing in it, both for the poet and his readers, is the ability to depict conflict at its most vulnerable point.' ’While frequently making parallels between poetry and religion, Jennings teases out the differences between the mystic and the poet: the poet wants to communicate ordinary experience while the mystic moves away from it.’

Christianity Today (1965) was what she called a ‘personal book’, dealing with ‘problems of taste and fashion, dogma and belief, style and form, tradition and the avant-garde’. She confronted the danger of the Christian label, with its associations of didacticism and moralizing. For her, it was about taking a Christian lens to all subjects, following on from Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, Patmore, Hopkins and T.S. Eliot. She refers to Peter Levi being a Jesuit, W.H. Auden’s piece ‘Christianity and Poetry’ in The Dyer’s Hand and David Jones’ application of his Catholic heritage to his poetry and painting. The chapters are titled: Anglo-Saxon; Middle English; The Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries; The Seventeenth Century; The Eighteenth Century; The Nineteenth Century; Women’s Visionary Poets – Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson; The Twentieth Century. “Foreigners and Mystics’ that includes Dante, Claudel, Peguy and Baudelaire.’

From a similar time period Modern Religious Verse edited by Tim Beaumont and An Anthology of Religious Verse edited by Norman Nicholson provide an interesting range of poets and approaches to religious poetry. Beaumont says of his selection that his choices are ‘typical of modern poetry’ and also ‘of modern religious feeling’. As a result, there is a strong emphasis on poems of doubt and poems of protest, with a consequent lack of ‘cultic or worshipping poems’. In his choices he drew heavily on poems published in Prism, as selected by Nicholas Mosley. Poets included are: W.H. Auden, D.C. Barker, Thomas Blackburn, James Brabazon, Edwin Brock, Roy Campbell, Charles Causley, G.K. Chesterton, E.E. Cummings, Paul Dehn, T.S. Eliot, Peter Firth, David Gascoyne, Helen Grundy, Alec D. Hope, L.E. Jones, Peter Levi, E.L. Mascall, John Masefield, Edwin Muir, Valerie Pitt, Ruth Pitter, F. Pratt Green, John Press, Dylan Thomas, Chad Walsh, Charles Williams.

Nicholson writes that to ‘many modern poets the events of Our Lord’s life are so vivid that they seem to be contemporary, so that it is natural for them to write in the language, imagery and form of our time.’ The structure of his book deals with modern conceptions of God and of life in relation to God. Poets included are: W.H. Auden, Hilaire Belloc, S.L. Bethell, G.K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare, Clifford Dyment, T.S. Eliot, George Every, M. Farrow, David Gascoyne, Thomas Hardy, Rayner Heppenstall, G.M. Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, Andrew Murray, Norman Nicholson, J.D.C. Pellow, Ruth Pitter, Anne Ridler, Michael Roberts, Walter Roberts, John Short, Tambimuttu, Allen Tate, Dylan Thomas, Charles Williams, W.B. Yeats and Andrew Young.

Mark Van Doren (June 13, 1894 – December 10, 1972) was an American poet, writer and critic, apart from being a scholar and a professor of English at Columbia University for nearly 40 years, where he inspired a generation of influential writers and thinkers including Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, John Berryman, Whittaker Chambers, and Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.’

'This was the time of Vatican II and Ed Rice's Jubilee magazine when a springtime of the church was celebrated in art, poetry and deep spirituality extending to all faiths - all this jubilation aided and abetted by Merton and Lax.' (Ned O'Gorman, blurb for 'Merton and Friends')

Van Doren taught that only religious poetry can be truly great. David Zlotnick reported on an address given by Van Doren to an Undergraduate Newman Club audience where he argued that "if poetry is about the world, religious poetry is about the universe":

‘"Today," he said, "we have narrowed and specialized the function of poetry," and tend to think of the Hymn as being symbolic of religious poetry. Professor Van Doren, however, finds it "the weakest and least moving form of religious poetry," because it is a limited form. Great religious poetry, he indicated, is poetry or prose which has emerged after struggle, conflict, and "terrific drama" have taken place in the souls of the authors, as they search for God. Expanding his thesis that those who initially fight most within themselves are, after coming to the truth, the most religious of people, Professor Van Doren emphasized that "God is very difficult to understand." "God did a tremendous thing when he made us free to hate him—he could have made us unfree to hate him. Yet," Professor Van Doren went on, referring to Lucretius' criticism of religion, "there is nothing like an attack on religion to reveal its power.”'

Merton, Lax, and Rice ‘were college buddies who became life-long friends, literary innovators, and spiritual iconoclasts.’

Merton, who died some 30 years before the other two, was the first to achieve fame with his best-selling spiritual autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain. Lax, whom Jack Kerouac dubbed "one of the great original voices of our times," eventually received recognition as one of "America's greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words" (New York Times Book Review). He spent most of the last 35 years of his life living frugally on one of the remotest of the Greek isles. After Jubilee folded, Rice wrote 20 books on world culture, religion, and biography. His 1970 biography of Merton, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, was judged too intimate, forthright, and candid by those who, in Lax's words, "were trying so hard to get pictures of [Merton's] halo that they missed his face." His biography of the 19th century explorer and "orientalist" Sir Richard Burton became a New York Times bestseller.’

'Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult.' ‘Merton corresponded with an extraordinary range of writers, among them Evelyn WaughHenry Miller, Jacques MaritainWalker Percy and William Carlos Williams. He spoke out boldly against political oppression, social injustice, racism and nuclear weapons, and expressed solidarity with Boris PasternakCzeslaw Milosz and James Baldwin. His letters to Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and to Argentine feminist Victoria Ocampo reflect his deep love of Latin American culture.’

'Lax pursued an approach to life he called pure act - a way of living in the moment that was both spontaneous and practiced, God-inspired and self-chosen. By devoting himself to simplicity, poverty and prayer, he expanded his capacity for peace, joy and lovewhile producing distinctive poetry of such stark beauty critics called him "one of America's greatest experimental poets" and "one of the new 'saints' of the avant-garde."'
In his introduction to Upholding Mystery, his 1997 anthology of contemporary Christian poetry, David Impastato argues that nothing is off-limits to the Christian poet who is equally comfortable with the “polyphony of self” as with the notion of history as ‘a web of narratives floating rather free of historical fact, if there is such a thing as fact.’ Such poetry, he suggests, seeks ‘to understand human personhood less in the conventional realms of “self” than in relation to the “other,” to community, and to the shaping of tradition.’ Finally, there is an acceptance of the universe ‘as a mystery beyond the reach of rational or scientific constructs.’

‘From Andrew Hudgins's often humorous narratives to Geoffery Hill's darkly impassioned lyrics, from Denise Levertov's incisive personal and political insights to Wendell Berry's lovely evocations of the divine presence in nature, the book provides generous selections of work by such well-known poets as Richard Wilbur, Annie Dillard, Daniel Berrigan, Les Murray, Louise Erdrich, and Kathleen Norris, along with the impressive though less known voices of David Craig, David Citino, Scott Cairns, Maura Eichner, and David Brendan Hopes. Together the anthology's fifteen poets have created what critic Jonathan Holden calls a "revolutionary core" of work that is recognized equally for the stature of its verse and for its illumination of the Christian ethos. By limiting the number of poets to fifteen rather than presenting the usual broad sampling, this unique collection allows readers to gain a thorough familiarity with each poet's work to see the struggle, discovery, and transformation of the spiritual quest throughout an individual body of verse, yet still to see how each poet contributes to a vision of the sacred that can be understood only in diversity, in the very contrast between one voice and another.’

Here ‘is a contemporary encounter with Christian mystery, in poetry that is as vibrant, as compelling, and as meaningful as any being written today’ ‘showing that the transcendent is indeed alive and well in the hands of contemporary poets, despite reports to the contrary.’

In Faith, Hope and Poetry Malcolm Guite, by means of a critical appreciation and analysis of particular poems from across the vast span of English literature beginning with The Dream of the Rood and ending with the work of Seamus Heaney, explores the idea that transfigured vision is fundamental to the experience both of writing and reading poetry, while arguing that the transfiguring of vision through a revitalized imagination is a common task for science, poetry, and theology. Foundational to this argument are Guite’s detailed and insightful readings of firstly The Dream of the Rood, followed by works from the pens of Shakespeare, Davies, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Milton, Coleridge, Hardy, Larkin, Hill, and Heaney.

Faith, Hope and Poetry seeks 'to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking to understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence.'


Elizabeth Jennings - Friends.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Bus Stop Nativity

Here is my sermon from Midnight Mass at St Stephen Walbrook:

Each year the Church Advertising Network creates a new advertising campaign for churches to use at Christmas. Their 2008 campaign featured a specially commissioned painting of the nativity, set in a freezing bus shelter, which was displayed in bus shelters across the UK throughout December that year. The painting is by Royal Academy Gold medal winner, Andrew Gadd and depicts the holy family, with halos, in a dark bus shelter. The shepherds and wise men are replaced with fellow passengers waiting for a bus. Some are watching the nativity intently; others appear oblivious and are checking the bus timetable and flagging down a bus.

Francis Goodwin, the Chair of Church Advertising Network, said: "We are very used to the Renaissance image of the Nativity. But what would it look like if it happened today? Where would it take place? We want to challenge people to make them reassess what the birth of Jesus means to them.” Andrew Gadd answered that question by setting the nativity in a bus stop. He explained that: "At first I didn't like the idea of painting a nativity scene in an urban setting. However, once it was explained that it was to be designed for bus stops, it gave me an idea... this idea. The bus stop when simplified is like a stable. It is after all a shelter; a place people go to but never want to be. So where better to stage a nativity? How unlikely!”

The details of the Christmas story — the visit of the angel to a poor Jewish girl, the humble occupation of the man to whom she was betrothed, the birth in a manger, the visit of the shepherds — are unlikely but not in terms of being out of the ordinary; instead they are unlikely precisely because they were ordinary.

Paul Richardson, writing in the Church of England Newspaper, reminds us that: “In the ancient world, gods were seen as superior to human beings but they remained alongside them, fighting with them, tricking them or sleeping with them ... When Homer wrote his epic poems, he wrote of kings and warriors, not ordinary people. Aristotle admired the kind of superior people who had the wealth and leisure to reflect and take part in the government of the state. Such people did not soil their hands with work. Ordinary, everyday work was left to slaves, an unimportant class of people whose job it was to free the aristocratic elite to get on with things that really mattered. How different the gospels are. In the words of the literary critic, Erich Auerbach, ‘Christ has not come as a hero and king but as a human being of the lowest social station. His first disciples were fishermen and artisans. He moved in the everyday milieu of humble folk. He talked with publicans and fallen women, the poor and the sick and children’.”

The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, has noted, that “as a consequence of Christianity people began to view the world from the perspective of ordinary human beings. It took time for the implications of this radical development to become apparent (we are still in the process of working things out), but it led eventually to the abolition of slavery, the extension of the vote to all adults, and the view that government should exist for the benefit of everyone, not just of the rich and powerful. Almost immediately in the early years of the church, Christians were known for their readiness to care for the poor and the sick. Hospitals began as a result of the church’s work.”

This focus on ordinary people is what the bus stop nativity reminds us of. It reminds us ultimately that Jesus was born to be Emmanuel – God with us. That is what the incarnation, “the union of the human and the divine in the life of a humble Jewish carpenter,” is all about. As John 1. 14 says, in the contemporary translation of the Bible called The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”

Through Christ’s birth, God has entered our world and moved into our neighbourhood. In Christ, God has identified with us by becoming one of us. The entire movement of the Bible - from God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, through God having a tent (the tabernacle) and then a house (the Temple) so he could live with the Israelites - led up to this moment in history when God became flesh and blood and entered our world. That is why Jesus is also called Emmanuel, which means God is with us.

What does it mean for God to be with us in the way? It means that God becomes a human being experiencing the whole trajectory of human existence from conception through birth, puberty, adulthood to death including all that we experience along the way in terms of relationships, experiences, emotions and temptations. Through his experience as a human being God understands us in ways that he could not if he had remained solely as our Creator. The letter to the Hebrews puts this well: “Since the children [meaning ourselves; all human beings] are flesh and blood, Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature … he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way … And now he can help those who are tempted, because he himself was tempted and suffered.”

This is what we find when we reassess what the nativity means. It is what the bus stop nativity reminds us of and, as Paul Richardson, reminds it is a major way in which Christianity marked a break with Greece and Rome: “The message of Christmas is that … it is the incarnation, the union of the human and the divine in the life of a humble Jewish carpenter, that transformed our understanding of the significance of ordinary, everyday life and led ultimately to a world where it is possible to talk of human rights and even of the fundamental equality of all human beings.”

Rowan Williams, when he visited one of the Bus Stop Nativity posters, as Archbishop of Canterbury, made just that point when he said that: "Jesus, the Son of God, … knew what it meant to be without wealth, he knew what it meant to grow up disadvantaged, he knew what it meant to turn to God in prayer, faith and hope.” And so he hoped that this image of the Holy Family, in a contemporary setting, would move those who see it “to stop, pray and reflect on what the birth of Jesus means to them in their daily lives."

Look again at the image of the bus stop nativity. A bus stop is a place that all of us go to. We are there, included in the image. Are we among those who are watching the nativity intently or are we oblivious, checking the bus timetable and flagging down a bus? What, I wonder, does it mean to us that God has become flesh and blood and has moved into our neighbourhood?


Jon Foreman - Instead Of A Show.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Word himself was waiting on her word

Here is my sermon for the 10.00am Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields this morning:

My grandson Joshua is two today. It is fascinating being part of the growth and development of a young child, particularly as a grandparent when you can remember what happened with your own children and also see the way in which, in this case, my daughter and son-in-law approach their role as parents. For several months now Joshua has been able to say ‘no’, often repeatedly and with much shaking of his head. He cannot yet say ‘yes’. Both are words of one syllable which one would expect that a child should find easy to learn, yet one is learnt early and the other much later. It may be, of course, that he has heard the word ‘no’ being said to him much more than he has yet heard the word ‘yes’!

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord,’ said Mary, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’ Mary said ‘Yes’ to God. As we have already begun to reflect, there is much more to saying that simple one syllable word ‘yes’ than we might at first imagine.

The poet-priest Malcolm Guite describes the Annunciation as follows:

‘a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.’

Victoria Emily Jones has reflected that ‘When Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would bear a son, she was at first troubled, afraid, guarded. How was it possible that she, being a virgin, could become pregnant? But with the angel’s words of reassurance and promise, she yielded to the divine plan …” This is known as Mary’s fiat (Latin for “let it be”)—her consent to become the mother of God—and it’s celebrated by the church as the moment at which God became flesh, setting salvation in motion.

Theologians have debated the nature of Mary’s fiat—whether she really had a choice in the matter. After all, Gabriel comes speaking in terms of what will happen, without mentioning any conditions. However, most believe in the criticality of Mary’s “yes,” of her willing bodily and spiritual surrender. Between the angel’s ‘Hail’ and Mary’s ‘Let it be’ was a moment of supreme tension, one that Luci Shaw explores in her poem ‘The Annunciatory Angel’:

‘… We worry that she might faint.
Weep. Turn away, perplexed and fearful
about opening herself. Refuse to let the wind
fill her, to buffet its nine-month seed into her earth.
She is so small and intact. Turmoil will wrench her.
She might say no.’’

Why might Mary have said ‘No’? In the same poem Luci Shaw suggests there was a ‘weight of apprehension’ at the Annunciation because what had to be announced would ‘not be entirely easy news.’ As a result, Alan Stewart, in an Annunciation monologue, has Mary say ‘I said yes to my God / And I have come to question those words / For I did not know where they would lead.’ Where they led was to an immediate future of gossip, rumours and insult from those who thought of Jesus as illegitimate and in the longer term to a life of gathering gloom, ultimately one of sorrowing and sighing before a stone-cold tomb after the experience of viewing her son’s torture and cruel death; which was like a sword piercing her heart.

And yet, although she did not know it and could not have articulated it, there is a sense that she accepted all this when she accepted the challenge that the angel Gabriel brought from God. It may also have been that for having Jesus as her son she was, like many parents, more than glad that she had said yes, accepting the trauma, the gossip, the exile, the insults that she might bear her child, the promised Saviour.

Mary could have said ‘No’ but her ‘Yes’ was a ‘Yes’ to new life, to growth, to new birth. Matthew Askey says that: ‘Mary ultimately said ‘yes!’ to life, and gave herself into the hands of God’s love, and this was something that resulted in the life of the most inspiring person who has ever lived, Jesus, and then the birth of the world-wide Church that followed. The Incarnation was predicated on the willingness of the teenage Mary to respond to God’s call.’ So, the Annunciation is the moment when the creator of everything finds a way into flesh and blood. And in doing that, the meaning of all life enters into full humanity.

That is what we celebrate at Christmas and continue to experience as we say ‘Yes’ to God, as ‘the meaning of life enters humanity still. The meaning of life desires us. Watches our movements and listens to our hopes. The meaning of life is a lover whose gentle fingers occasionally touch and startle us, asking if we can love back, but never using force on us ... waiting to be invited to love. The meaning of life is love. Something intangible by nature. Something that cannot be possessed, bought, or sold.

And at Christmas we celebrate the fact that God, the source of all love and meaning, has so desired humanity that He has taken the risk of becoming vulnerable to what we might do if His life is left in our hands. God, the meaning of life, desires you and me in a way that one of us would desire our partner.’ (The Late, Late Service)

The poet Noel Rowe captures something of this in his Annunciation poem when he writes:

‘The angel did not draw attention to himself.
He came in. So quietly I could hear
my blood beating on the shore of absolute
beauty …

my heart, my heart, was wanting him,
reaching out, and taking hold of smooth-muscled fire.
And it was done.’

He says, ‘I used a slightly eroticised image not to suggest their encounter was sexual, but to reimagine spirituality as passionate and creative, a poetic of desire.’ This has been the experience of Christian mystics throughout Church history; God as the incomprehensible mystery that embraces everything making the goal of human life that of losing oneself in this divine mystery in love. As Karl Rahner wrote: ‘When I abandon myself in love, then you are my very life, and your incomprehensibility is swallowed up in love’s unity. When I am allowed to love you, the grasp of our very mystery becomes a positive source of bliss.’

‘Love and desire are about creative union. About being open and receptive to the other, letting them be fully themselves, working for their pleasure, receiving their gifts to you. And when we're open to being God's partner, we find the mystery of meaning ...

You and I have this choice. A chance to respond to the touch of our lover and receive this union in our souls ... the centre of who we are. A choice to live life for the meaning of the moment, not just the thrill, and to turn from anything that promises a thrill and delivers meaninglessness. God is still in Flesh and Blood. Now God is flesh and blood in partnership and love, and like Mary we must say "Yes" to that partnership and discover the meaning of our own individual (and communal) lives.’

Malcolm Guite writes that in her ’open ‘yes’’, as she heard God’s call, Mary ‘spoke aloud for every living soul.’ So ‘every Christian after her seeks to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is born and given to another.’ Christ is carried by Mary, both in her womb and in her arms, in order that he can then carry us to God by means of his death of the cross. In turn, we carry him to others by means of our daily life and witness. As Teresa of Avila said:

‘Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.’

Similarly, it is through his actions that little Joshua says ‘yes’ at present, while he is as yet unable to speak the word. He is constantly embracing new experiences and the love of family and friends, but does so through his actions rather than his words.

Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ and then lived that out despite the challenges she faced. Will you do the same by saying, as the chorus to ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’ puts it: ‘Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night / I will go, Lord, if you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart’?


Luci Shaw - The Cosmos.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Andrew Gadd: sparking certain motions in the spirit

My sermon for Midnight Mass at St Stephen Walbrook on Christmas Eve is based on The Bus Stop Nativity, a painting by Andrew Gadd for a Church Advertising Network Christmas campaign

'Gadd was born in London and studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art. In 1990 he graduated from the Falmouth School of Art with a degree in Fine Art Painting, he returned to London where he continued to study painting at the Royal Academy of Art in London til 1993. He was awarded a Gold Medal for Art and the Richard Ford travel scholarship from the Royal Academy which enabled him to continue with painting at the Prado Museum in Spain. His work has a distinctly figurative and narrative allegorical style.'

'Gadd’s talent encompass the straightforward still-life and portrait but range more happily towards the allegorical. He frequently embarks upon large and complex figure paintings, sometimes interiors, others set in a landscape, of exalted scale and ambition. He has developed a formidable battery of artistic strategies and devices to realize his ends. Timing and placement, movement and stasis, lighting and concentration – all are crucial ways in which Gadd rises to the challenges he sets himself.'

In writing about Gadd's 'The Day Begins' exhibition, John Berger said "Something like a prophecy of vision and talent being fulfilled. The paintings both awaken and haunt. Bus Stop Nativity, The Day Begins and God and his Dog are indelible. Because of the indivisible " fit" between your methods methods as a painter and your vision as a seer." Andrew Lambirth wrote, "His highly individual approach results in images that manage to exist outside time by reconciling in unique combination the ancient and the futuristic. Gadd's present is otherworldly and thus timeless,which helps to explain it's unusual resonance: a resonance which ( in Michel Leiris' evocative phrase) sparks certain motions in the spirit."


Bruce Cockburn - Mary Had A Baby.

Windows on the world (376)

Ely, 2014


Bob Dylan - Stand By Faith.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Windows on the world (375)

Norwich, 2014


Travelling Wilburys - Not Alone Any More.

commission4mission's Christmas newslette

commission4mission's e-news for Christmas has recently been sent out. Our thanks to Victoria Norton. Please enjoy looking over our forthcoming exhibitions and past events. In this newsletter we feature Victoria Norton, Clorinda Goodman and Judy Goring.  

We have welcomed several new artists to commission4mission this year, there are more included in this newsletter (Susan Latchford, Dorothy Morris and Lucy Crabtree) and more to come in our next issue.

Our artists have had a busy year exhibiting and making during 2017. Please visit our artists on their websites or in their studios for last minute Christmas gifts, purchasing and commissioning, or just because you are interested in the work they produce.


Jeff Lynne's ELO - All Over the World.

In the time between times

Here is my sermon from this morning's Sung Eucharist at St Anne's Lutheran Church:

We live in the time between the times. That may sound like the opening sentence in a science fiction novel but it is also an important truth for us to understand in this time of Advent when we prepare to remember Christ’s first coming and look forward to Christ’s second coming.

The things that Jesus did in his ministry on earth - healing people physically, emotionally and spiritually, forgiving sins, including the excluded and raising the dead - were the beginnings of the rule and reign of God on earth. In Jesus’ ministry we see “the signs, the dawning, the budding of the … kingdom” of God. The first coming of Jesus was a demonstration of what the kingdom of God is and will become.

I say “will become” because history is moving towards a climax with the second coming of Jesus when the kingdom of God will be fully realised on earth and, as the book of Revelation tells us, there will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.

So the Bible speaks about there being two ages, this age and the age to come. Through Jesus, the kingdom of God has broken into this age and when Jesus returns the age to come will begin when the kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Therefore, we live in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus. In the time between the times, we see signs of God’s kingdom on earth but are still waiting for the full realisation of that kingdom and we are therefore in a similar position to that of John the Baptist (John 1: 6-8, 19-28)..

John lived in the time before Jesus began his ministry and spent his life looking out for and pointing people towards Jesus. Therefore, John can give us ideas about the way in which we should live as we look out for and point people towards the kingdom of God and Jesus’ second coming.

The first thing that we can see from John’s witness is that we should point people to Jesus and not to ourselves. In verses 19-21, John is asked whether he is the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. Each time he answers, “I am not”. John’s “I am not” is in deliberate contrast to Jesus who, throughout, this Gospel says, “I am” because I AM is actually the name of God - I AM WHO I AM (the name that God used of himself when he spoke to Moses from the burning bush).

Archbishop William Temple wrote that John is here giving us an example for our own witness because he is saying, “Never mind who I am; listen to what I say and look at the person that I point you towards.” If ever our witness begins to be about ourselves or to make ourselves very prominent something is going wrong with it. It is not ourselves but our witness for which we want to claim attention. As Paul writes, “We preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” In this time between the times, our lives and our words need to point others away from ourselves and towards Jesus.

Next, John describes himself and his role by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of someone shouting in the desert; Make a straight path for the Lord to travel.” John is quoting the beginning of Isaiah 40 which says:

“A voice cries out, “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God! Fill every valley; level every mountain. The hills will become a plain, and the rough country will be made smooth. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind will see it. The Lord himself has promised this.”

John was in the wilderness which was also the place where the Israelites had been before they entered the Promised Land. The wilderness is the place of waiting, of preparation, for the promise of God to be fulfilled. John’s job in this place of preparation sounds like a major building project - fill every valley, level every mountain, make the hills a plain and the rough country smooth. And when this has been done then the glory of the Lord will be seen by everyone. So, John’s job was to call people to remove barriers to all people everywhere seeing Jesus for themselves.

The task that God had given to the Jewish people was to be a light to the Gentiles, to reveal the glory of God to all people. Jerusalem and its Temple was supposed to become a place to which the nations would stream to learn from God. Instead the Temple became a symbol of Jewish identity with all sorts of people excluded from worship at the Temple unless they conformed to the detailed requirements of the Mosaic Law. The Temple and the worship in it actually prevented the free access to God’s word that God wanted to see for people of all nations. Therefore, John is calling for all those barriers to God to be removed and torn down so that people can clearly see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

In the time between the times we need to do the same. To identify those things in our society that prevent people from seeing Jesus and call for their removal. I’m thinking, for example, of the consumerism and individualism in our society that lead people to live as though all that matters is themselves and their own pleasure. A few years ago an American ambassador to UN food agencies in Rome found a novel way to do that this week by consigning most of his black tie evening guests to a freezing tent with only rice to eat. Tony Hall invited guests at his walled residence to pick a card from a hat and, while those who drew one card were ushered inside for a candlelit meal, he joined the unlucky others outside. By doing this he gave people a shock demonstration of what it is like for the 60 per cent of the world’s 6 billion people who struggle to eat. Hall told his Times interviewer that he was prompted in his quest to bring world hunger to people’s attention both by what he has seen firsthand in Ethiopia and by Isaiah 58.6, where God says: “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free.”

Finally, John is questioned about the reason why he baptised people. John’s baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. Those who were baptised by John were people who agreed with him that the people of Israel had lost their way and were not fulfilling God’s plan for their nation. John’s baptism prepared them to recognise Jesus who would faithfully carry out God’s plan for the salvation of all peoples. In the time between the times we need to do the same, to call people away from our society’s obsession with consuming more and more goods in order to bolster our own fragile egos and help people turn towards Jesus’ way of giving to others in order to see signs in our day of the kingdom of God.

Like John the Baptist we live in a time of preparation for the coming of something greater than what we know. Like him, we need to point people, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. Like him, we need to call for the removal of all barriers to people seeing Jesus for themselves. And like him, we need to help people repent for lives and a society that ignores God’s purpose and plan for our lives and turn back to God. As we learn from John, like him, we can create signs in our time of that something greater for which we wait. We can create signs of the kingdom of God which is here now but which will fully come when Jesus comes again.


Kings College Choir - Coventry Carol.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Start:Stop - Advent waiting

Bible reading

Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning-- lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch." (Mark 13:33-37)


Advent is a time of watching and waiting. Waiting to celebrate the first coming of Christ and reflecting on our wait for his second coming. Waiting is a common experience; one that used to characterise the British as we were known for our ability to wait patiently in queues. Now that would seem to have changed, as adverts claim that impatience is a virtue.

Alan Stewart, a clergy friend, has written a meditation which helps us reflect on our common experiences of waiting. He begins:

Waiting for news / News you long for / News you fear / Waiting for answers
Waiting to rejoice / With tears of laughter / Tears of regret / Waiting to grieve
Waiting to remember / Waiting to forget
Waiting to greet / or to say goodbye / Waiting to embrace / or to push away

He ends: Waiting for God / And in the waiting / God waits / With us.

So, God is with us in our waiting. That is the first thing for us to realise and sense. It is something that we see both in the Christmas story and in the wider story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as I have highlighted in another meditation:

Waiting. / Elizabeth waiting years for the conception of a child.
Waiting. / Mary waiting nine months for the birth of God’s son.
Waiting. / Simeon waiting to see the salvation of Israel.
Waiting. / Eastern visitors following a star, waiting to worship the baby born King of the Jews.
Waiting. / Joseph and Mary living in Egypt waiting for the death of Herod.

So, I conclude: Love waits. / Birth waits. / New life waits. / Revelation waits. / God waits.

Why are we waiting? Why does God wait? The answer that the Bible seems to give is that he is waiting for us to respond to him. W. H. Vanstone wrote: “So it is with the love of God. For the completion of its work, and therefore its own triumph, it must wait upon the understanding of those who receive it. The love of God must wait for the recognition of those who have power to recognise … Recognition of the love of God involves, as it were, the forging of an offering: the offering is the coming-to-be of understanding: only where this understanding has come to be has love conveyed its richest blessing and completed its work in triumph.”

God waits for us; waits for our recognition, understanding and response to his love. So, let us make it our aim and prayer this Advent to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly day by day.


Watchful at all times, let us pray for strength to stand with confidence before our Maker and Redeemer. Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

Lord, you wait for us to come and see you. You wait to shine light where there is darkness, to show love where there is hate, to share peace where there is conflict, to give hope where there is despair. Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

Lord, you wait for us to come and see you. Let us gather round the manger to shine your light, to show your love, to share your peace, to give your hope. Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

Let us come, and remember what has been fulfilled. Let us prepare for what must yet be done. Let us come to the One who waits to show us love. Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

(Christine Sine)

Almighty God, as your blessed Son Jesus Christ first came to seek and to save the lost; so may he come again to find in us the completion of his redeeming work. Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.


Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you, scatter the darkness from before your path, and make you ready to meet him when he comes in glory; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.


Steve Bell & Malcolm Guite - Epiphany on the Jordan.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Silks from Imperial China: Ming & Qing dynasty costumes & textiles 1368-1911

Silks from Imperial China: Ming & Qing dynasty costumes & textiles 1368-1911
Monday 15 January 2018 6.30pm - St Martin’s Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, together with the Chinese Speaking Congregations of St Martin's, is organising an occasional series of art talks focusing on aspects of Chinese Art.

The first lecture in this series will be on Chinese Textiles and will be given by Jacqueline Simcox on Monday 15 January 2018. Jacqueline will talk about some of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) textiles and some of the imperial costumes and festivals and show how they changed when the Machu from the north took over the country from 1644-1911 (Qing dynasty).

Jacqueline Simcox has written numerous articles on Chinese textiles, catalogued private collections and contributed essays to museum exhibition catalogues, such as ‘Celestial Silks’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, in 2004. More recently she has co-authored, with John Vollmer, a book on the imperial Chinese textiles in the Mactaggart Art Collection, University of Alberta, in Canada. ‘Emblems of Empire’was published in 2010.

The talk will be held in St Martin's Hall, within the Crypt of St Martin's, and will begin at 6.30pm for one hour. The talk will be followed by a drinks reception in the Bishop Ho Ming Wah Association and Community Centre.

Sponsored by Bonhams Chinese Department.

All are very welcome – register on Eventbrite or contact Jonathan Evens – t: 020 7766 1127, e:


Joshua Band - Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Windows on the world (374)

Walsingham, 2014


Friday, 8 December 2017

The ending and beginning of all our journeying

Here is my reflection from last night's Carol Service for Gallagher at St Stephen Walbrook:

Journeys feature heavily in the Christmas story. There are the physical, geographical journeys of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in the census, the rather shorter journey of the Shepherd from the hills surrounding Bethlehem to the manger itself, the lengthy journey of the Magi following the star via Herod’s palace to the home of Jesus, and the journey of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt following the Magi’s visit.

Then there are the emotional and life journeys that the characters in the story make. For Mary the journey of pregnancy and birth following her submission to God’s will at the Annunciation; the journey of carrying God himself in her womb for nine months while enduring the disapproval of her community. For Joseph, there is the journey from what was considered right in the community of his day – a quiet divorce – to the realisation that to do God’s will meant standing by Mary despite the local disgrace and scandal.

All these journey’s, and others, bring us to the birth of Jesus; the birth of the new thing that God was doing in the life of our world and the new thing that he was doing in the lives of these people. What can we learn from their journeys that will help us in our own life journeys?

None of their journeys were easy. Even those with shortest journey, such as the Shepherds, risked disapprobation and even the loss of their livelihood, for leaving their sheep to worship Jesus. The Magi, no doubt, had a lengthy and uncomfortable journey not knowing exactly where they were going and nearly being seduced by Herod into contributing to the death of the child they sought. But for Mary and Joseph their journey was most difficult; the worries of carrying a full-term baby in the full glare of public disapprobation, an uncomfortable journey just prior to birth, and the pain of birth in an unsuitable and uncomfortable environment far from home.

God does not promise us that the experience of being part of the new thing that he is doing is ever easy but imagine the joy and wonder of the moment that Jesus is born, when Mary holds this precious, promised child for the first time, when the Shepherds come bursting in with their tales of Angels singing glory to God and the Magi come bearing their gifts, and all who come, come to worship the child that she holds. No wonder the story tells us that she pondered or treasured these things in her heart. This child, both God and human being, was born to save humanity for our sins. God’s new act to rescue a fallen humanity; God doing a new thing in our world to demonstrate his love for each one of us.

Your journey tonight, like that of the Shepherds has been very short, but the life journeys that have brought us here tonight could well have been lengthy and hard. Like Mary and Joseph, those journeys might have involved disapprobation or scandal, the worry and pain of birthing and caring for children, like the Shepherds our life journey may have risked our livelihoods or like the Magi have involved a lengthy search for truth that has included looking in and leaving the wrong places.

However we have come tonight, the possibility remains for us to experience the new thing that God has done in our world through the birth of his son, Jesus. The good news about which the Angels sang on that first Christmas night was peace on earth, goodwill among human beings; a peace that comes as human beings receive forgiveness from God for all the wrong and torturous journeys we have had, the actions and decisions that have hurt us and hurt others. We know now that we can be forgiven because God has come, as a human being, to be with us, to experience all that human life involves and, ultimately to die to save us from our sins.

This is the new thing that God has done in our world. It is this that came to birth at Bethlehem. It is this to which all our journeys lead. Will we, with Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi, this Christmas kneel and worship this child, Jesus, God with us, the Saviour of our world, the ending and beginning of all our journeying?


Peter Warlock - Bethlehem Down.

Parish Carols, Midnight Mass & New Beginnings

Carol Service and Blessing of the Crib

Our Parish Carol Service at St Stephen Walbrook will take place next Wednesday 13th December at 6.00pm. It will have well-known carols to sing, traditional readings, the Blessing of the Christmas Crib and St Stephen’s Voices will be accompanied by the renowned Willis organ. The service will last under an hour, be led by myself, with the Christmas message being given by Revd Sally Muggeridge. It will be followed by mince pies and mulled wine and you are all most welcome to this very popular service, but please arrive in good time if you want a seat with a view.

Christmas Eve Mass

On Christmas Eve at 11.30pm, we will be celebrating the arrival of Christmas with a sung Eucharist, celebrated by Revd Sally Muggeridge and the preacher will be myself. St Stephen’s Voices will lead the music and the organist will be Dr Andrew Earis. The service, to which all are welcome, will be followed by mince pies and hot drinks.

Fresh challenges

These two Christmas services will also mark the moving on to different pastures of both myself and Revd Sally Muggeridge.

Sally completes two years of her curacy this Christmas and will be moving from the Diocese of London to her home Diocese of Canterbury to, in time, be licensed in the parish where she lives. We have been very fortunate to have enjoyed Sally’s assistance and ministry at St Stephen Walbrook during this time and can be particularly grateful for the links she has established with the City and with businesses locally. I have greatly appreciated having her here as a colleague and I am sure we will all wish her well for the future.

In relation to my own situation, as Associate Vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields, our partner church, I have been instrumental in creating and establishing HeartEdge, a new network of churches for those working at the heart of culture, community and commerce and with those at the margins and on the edge. In 2018 I will be developing this and other partnerships further and so will be moving full-time to St Martin-in-the-Fields to focus on this important work.

The Archdeacon for the Two Cities, in writing to the PCC with news of this development, noted that the three years I have been at St Stephen Walbrook have seen ‘significant change and growth’ including Start:Stop, our popular ten-minute Tuesday morning reflections, being just one among several examples of a key initiative that has created ‘a new pattern of missional engagement at Walbrook.’ Others include the uplifting ‘Discover and Explore’ series of services on Mondays, which have featured different themes accompanied by the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Archdeacon Rosemary also stated that the partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields ‘remains strong and will continue to grow’ and the fact ‘that Walbrook can look confidently to the future is a sign of all that has been achieved.’

Our Christmas services will therefore provide an opportunity for both Sally and I to say goodbye to you all before moving on to these fresh challenges. Both Sally and I wish you all a Peaceful and Joyous Christmas.


The Choir of Somerville College, Oxford - Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.