Monday 31 May 2021

Phasing Out The Common European Psalm

Big news on the Beaker Brexit front, as it has been discovered that we have been singing metrical psalms all this time. It has led to calls for all metrical psalms to revert to imperial measures. Don't want any metric in our newly-independent United Kingdom.

This is a major change. After all, we're reverting to the way we sang psalms prior to the UK's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. It may sound a bit obscure and technical to some. So best to explain through a common metrical psalm, such as the Lord's my Shepherd.

Under the European Psalm Harmonisation Measure, The Lord's my Shepherd was in Common Meter  (8-6-8-6). In reverting to traditional English psalmody, this has now been converted back to Short Imperial Meter (£8/6/6½d). Long Meter is now Brilliant Imperial Meter ((£12/8/4½d).

There are some problems with this of course. Notably all the fractions of iambic tetrameter that are left over after rounding. There is a concern that, in keeping with the alleged inflationary effect of decimalisation in the 1970s, that all poetry will now be a bit shorter. Again to use Psalm 23, this has had to be reduced to:

The Lord's my Shep.
I'll not.
He makes me green the waters.

Some are saying that these shortened psalms aren't as good as the old, efficient, pre-Brexit ones. If you've heard the Beaker Quire, however, you'll know that the shorter the psalms, the happier we will all be.

Saturday 29 May 2021

“For God so loved the world”

When we say “God so loved the world”, what do we think of as “the world”? The world of people? The world of business? The sinful, evil world we imagine always being out there? The world of nature? The universe that God created? All things we can think of as “the world”. 

The Book of Common Prayer baptism service includes rejection of “ devil, the world, and the flesh.” 

I mean, first up. Yes. Obviously reject the devil. Very sensible. Not a good bone in whatever body the definition of rebellion against God possesses. Let's get rejecting the devil very clearly out there. Rejecting the devil is very much, in my opinion, a good thing. Spotting the devil in order to reject the devil, often trickier.

But how do we reject the world? What meaning of world? We can love the world too much - and get obsessed with ambition, riches and what have you. What meaning of flesh? Obviously we can become obsessed with things that make us feel good. Or, these days, we can be driven to things that make us too sad about the flesh we have. Look too much at magazine articles and vlogs and influencers that are all about perfect bodies and not our own ordinary bodies. Either way, that’s not good. We aren’t called to make either gods or devils of our own bodies.

But God made the world.  We are told in the beginning, when God created the world, his Word was what brought things into life. And God’s Spirit was on the waters of chaos. And God said the things of the World are Good. 

And the Word - as Jesus - became flesh. So these things aren’t bad. Flesh and the world aren’t actually bad. Flesh must be good because God walked around made of it.

And now we’re told this. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. That whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.”

So God loves this world that God made. Maybe God’s not so fond of some of the things we do with it. And maybe we have lost God's own wonder at the world. We can lose the sheer joy of the world in our modern, industrial, technological lives. Sometimes the computer screen, or the phone, or the motorway ahead of us, or the building opposite, is all that we see. 

And we’ve inherited from the Industrial Revolution a view of the world that it’s there to exploit - a thing we’ve conquered, and a thing we’re separate from. We extract gravel from farmland so we can make cities and we suck oil from the ground to make the toys in McDonalds Happy Meals so they can wash up on Turkish beaches in 10 years time and the earth itself is just a resource for us.

But God loves this world. So much that God’s son came for it. All of it. We can go down to the individual level in a minute. But worth staying at a higher level for a mo. God loves this world. Its geology, its plants, its animals, the amazing way it sustains life. God also loves the entire universe that the world moves through. God made it beautiful and even with its flaws and dangers, it is beautiful.

And then God loves us. And God makes us a special case. First up - he sent his Son, who came as one of us. Imagine the cost to God of giving the Son? You can’t. I can’t. It’s a mystery. We’re not God. But it must be costly, as God had to love us so much that it was worth it. And his Son was lifted up on a cross so we can all be saved. And that’s an amazing image Jesus uses about the snake in the desert. I’m sure you’ll all remember the story from Numbers, but in case you don’t - there was an outbreak of snakes in the desert. And the people of Israel came to Moses and said “make the snakes go away”. And God didn’t make the snakes go away. Instead, he got Moses to lift up a bronze snake on a pole. And though the snakes kept on biting the people, if they looked at the snake they didn’t die but they were saved.

In the same way - remember the snake in the Garden of Eden - well, the curse he talked our mythical ancestors Adam and Eve into hasn’t gone away. We still have temptation and we still have sin. But Jesus is saying here - even though sin is in the world, and even though you still sin - look up to me and you will be saved. You will be a subject of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

But Jesus I think is also saying, beyond that - because you’re sinful, you actually need to know to look up to him for your forgiveness. Under your own power, you can’t even find the forgiveness that is available to you. 

So Jesus says - you must be born from God. Through water and the Spirit. Born from above, because you can’t do it in your own strength. I’m not going to give you a definition of what “born from water and the Spirit” means, as after 2,000 years of analysis there’s at least four possible ways of explaining it and we wouldn’t have time! But what it says to me is that God’s spirit is working with our human nature. And I’ll get the rest of the explanation eventually.

Last Monday the Church of England, and hopefully last Sunday the Methodist Church, remembered John and Charles Wesley. Not on the date that either of them died, which is a bit unusual. But on what I call, as an old Methodist, Aldersgate Day. It’s the day John Wesley went to meeting at a chapel in Aldersgate St in the City of London, and someone read from Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. And Wesley wrote later, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 

And the funny thing was, he’d been a priest in the Church of England for 10 years by then.

But I think that was the Holy Spirit working in Wesley. He’d gone from a dry faith, about what he did and what he’d always believed - and to be fair he’d known he needed more. And now he had a direct experience of the Spirit working in him. Giving him the faith he needed in Jesus. And giving him the assurance that through Jesus’s work on the cross, he was forgiven all the things he had done wrong.

Now some people read “born from above” (or “born again”) and think it prescribes a very stereotypical way that you become a Christian. You’re full of sin. You think to yourself, there is nobody to help me. You hear the Gospel. You become a Christian. Hallelujah! You’re born again.

And if that happened to you, that’s all well and good. It more or less did to me, as it happens. But it’s only one way, in my opinion, that you become a Christian. Millions of people have become Christian by being steadily going to church all their lives, loving Jesus and being filled with the Spirit, and not needing to have a crisis experience. Jesus says that people who are born of the Spirit are like the wind. You can’t control where they’re coming from or where they’re going to. And to prescribe how other people become Christians is I believe like trying to put chains on the Holy Spirit. You shouldn’t try it. And it won’t work. Let’s rejoice however people come to Jesus, not give other people our patterns to fit into. And let the Spirit blow where the Spirit wants. Which is what will happen anyway. You don’t have to be like me, and I don’t have to be like you and that is all good. What matters is that we know Jesus and we are filled by the Spirit.

So Trinity Sunday. I’ve not tried to do any illustrations of the Trinity. Not tried to explain the Trinity. I won’t. The Trinity is a mystery. The Creeds don’t explain the Trinity - they put a hedge around the definitions. Tell us what is safe to say, what we can say. And then leave it.

But the revelation of the Trinity to us is utterly woven through this passage that we’ve heard. God so loved the world that God sent the Son. The Son is lifted up for us to be saved. And the Spirit is the one that brings us to new birth in God, lifts up our eyes to Jesus, moves us forward and guides us in our faith. That’s not a theoretical Trinity that we might try to investigate like a lab specimen and define under a microscope, if we were so arrogant. That’s the living Trinity of love. The Trinity that made us, loves us, makes all things new, and brings us to eternal life. May we continue to know that open, generous, love of God the Holy Trinity, three in one. And may we reflect that love in our lives, forever.

Monday 24 May 2021

Waking Up in the Light of Pentecost

 Bit of a day we're looking forward to here.

At the Beaker Folk we embrace the imagery of the Holy Ghost as the Wild Goose. Free, unfettered, slightly eerie when flying overhead.

So we weren't going to complain about Young Keith's promised "surprise" illustration. We expected some lovely audio-visual of a V-formation, the old stuff about the one in front doing the work but them all sharing out the job, the "all of us is because one of us are" stuff.

Anyway. Long and short. The Canadian Goose Removal Party is to assemble at the Moot House south-east portal at 9. Please bring nets, pointy sticks, and buckets of water. I know Young Keith suggested a flame thrower. But they've still got Burton Dasset. So let's go easy.

In other news - dinner tonight may well be giant omelettes.

Sunday 23 May 2021

Litany for Nul Points at Eurovision

O Graham Norton, how long must we come last?

Our songs aren't very good, we know.

And we don't get our singers to dress as trolls

We don't understand Europop

And there is no joy in us.

We can only be silly properly after a night out in Covid-secure conditions in Barnsley pubs.

But surely this is nothing to do with any of that.

We get no points because they're jealous of our vaccines

And teaching us a lesson because of Brexit

And Prince Harry

And because they've never got over the War.

We think back to the good old days

When we won it with Katrina

That blue-blooded English girl

From Topeka, Kansas.

We were walking on sunshine then

Although we can't remember what she won with. Wasn't as good.

So we demand our Government withdraw from Eurovision

We could save the £5.50 we spend every year on our performers' costumes

And give it to Dido Harding instead.

That'll teach 'em Mr Mainwaring.

Friday 21 May 2021

Getting Married in the Church of England - Update

Remember the bad old days of weddings? Such old-fashioned, weird times before 4 May this year?  When the happy couple would sign two registers, the vicar would keep a copy to send the Registrar, and then give a copy to the Best Man to lose in hilarious circumstances about six hours later at the Reception? Weren't they complicated, clunky and traditional?

Well, don't worry. In the middle of a pandemic, when nobody had anything else to worry about, the Government has changed to a new, funky, digital, and exciting system.

Dave Walker has a great cartoon in the Church Times to advise clergy on how this particular bit of their admin (and a few others) is changing. But I do feel like he's being a bit kind to the new marriage system. I may have got some of this wrong. So feel free to correct me before any innocent clergy accidentally gets it all wrong. Here we go...

"It's Digital! (but you'll need a paper copy too)" is putting it mildly.

It's digital in the same way that this blog is. In that it exists on a computer. You don't submit it digitally. You don't process it digitally.  No. What you do is - you go onto a computer. You go to the right page (if you can work out what the right page is) and you can then type into the document you find on that page, just like an old-fashioned Word document. Because it's a Word document.

And then, just like an old-fashioned Word document, you can print it off. There you go. That was the digital bit done. Yeah. You would have thought there was more to it than that. No block chain or Time Lord technology or anything like that. Not even an up to date version of Word.

In case even that was too much digital for you (in which case I presume you're getting this blog post printed off for you by a more technical friend), you can print off a whole lot of blank copies as well for emergencies, and fill them in by hand. Forever. You need never go digital again.

Try and use nice paper though. You remember those lovely old wedding registers where everyone took the photos while people were signing them and then some vicars who didn't  understand stuff got all umpty and said you couldn't, as taking photographs of a register (which is a public document) would reveal people's name (which are their names) so it broke GDPR (which it didn't) or Child Protection or the Official Secrets Act or something. Them lovely old green ones. Which you signed with a lovely old fountain pen in lovely old special Registrar's ink. Well, they've gone.

Instead. Everyone signs a bit of A4 which came off the vicar's printer. Let's hope they've got a nice laser printer. As if the vicar's still using the dot-matrix they bought when they were the trendiest vicar on the block in 1988, you're gonna be signing something that looks like a prop in the original TV run of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

So use a lovely bit of textured, lovely paper. I would. And you still need the lovely old ink and pen.

At this point, you then get the good bit of the new system. You can enter both the happy couple's parents' names and jobs - mothers and fathers - so that's good. Big step forward.  And you can also enter up to two (but no more than two) of the parent's new significant others. Giving up to four people that you can put down. Still not enough for Adele, probably, but enough to cause some real heartache when the groom is debating which of his mother's three polyamorous partners to put down together with his father and his father's new civil partner.

And you can have up to six witnesses. Or eight. Or something. Two or more, at any rate. This is in case any of them die before you find out the wedding document never got to the Registry Office.Which will never happen of course.

So you print out the form. Get it signed by the bride, groom, and witnesses.  DO NOT give it to the Best Man to lose in hilarious circumstances in six hours's time. DO NOT give it to the Bride's mother or significant other to show the neighbour. DO NOT take a copy. This is very important. You will see why later.

You then post the signed document to the Registry Office. Don't use registered post. Don't track it. Don't worry. No important documents every go astray.

Because the system is so slick, churches no longer need registers. Which is why the churches have to buy a new book, in a lovely grey colour, with the words "Register of Marriage Services" on the cover. The Register of Marriage Services are like the old green books, only not so important. Also DO NOT get anyone to sign them except the clergy. That's not what they're for. I'm not sure what they're for, but never mind. Let's move on.


New, non-green, Register that isn't a Register

You will see that each entry in the new Register-which-isn't-a-Register has a serial number on it which should match the one you entered on the wedding document you just posted.

What do you mean? "Oh dear?" That's normally what the bride's mother says at a wedding.

It's a great thing, this serial number. You can use any serial numbering you like. Which means if you're a boring old vicar you can just start at number 1 and work up. Then when you're talking to the registrar about the wedding document that didn't turn up (which will never happen), they can ask you which parish it was in as you've sent them four number 6's this month. If you're a vicar who was formerly in IT, you're liable to overthink it, and try to develop some numbering scheme that accounts for, for instance, having two church in the same parish but only one book so you'd better have some kind of structured key except you remember from your Business Analyst training in 1988 that you DON'T PUT MEANING IN A KEY. So maybe you need another book to identify the link entity between marriages and churches. Or something. There's no obvious reason why the sequence numbers should be strictly sequential, by the way. They could frankly write the names of the books of the Bible in there, or only prime numbers, or ascending values of vulgar fractions. The scope for creativity appears to be huge.

Let's move on. You've realised you have duplicated the sequence number.  So you're going to need to go and hang around by the post box, and try and persuade the postperson to let you have the marriage document back and that's gonna be tricky. Not to mention probably illegal. Better wear your dog collar. And stop all that stress-dribbling.

You will have noticed that at no point in the process so far has the best man got a copy of the marriage certificate to lose six hours later in hilarious circumstances. The happy couple have to apply for this separately, by contacting the registry office, either before, after, or presumably even during the wedding ceremony. Perhaps there's an opportunity to make the liturgy include the phoning of the Registry Office just after the priest has declared them person and other person, or whatever the next gender-neutral marriage ceremony will say. However. Let's suppose, despite the Royal Mail never losing documents, that the arrival of the document at the registry office never happened. Now what?

Time for the other bit of good news. There is no need for the quarterly return.

The what, I hear you ask? Unless you're a clergy, in which case I hear gentle sobbing.

The quarterly return. The thing whereby the registrar could check they'd received all the copies of the wedding certificates from all the churches, chase down any that had gone missing, and spot fakes.

Because now all that happens after a wedding is that clergy sends in a sheet of A4, with the names of all the various possible combinations of parents and parentoids,  and the names and signatures of the happy couple and the various witnesses  and witnessoids, with a sequence number made up by the vicar based on anything at all they like, there's absolutely no way that the pieces of paper could go missing or be faked is there?

Oh, good point. Which has just been noticed.

So now the quarterly return has been scrapped on a national basis, individual registry offices need to reintroduce it on a local basis. Each with their own scheme. Each on their own design of digital medium (eg a Word document) to be posted, emailed or carrier-pigeoned back as clergy see fit. Or not sent back at all, as it's not a legal requirement, it's just a favour to the poor registrars who are desperately trying to get some control back into a process that's not fit for purpose.

And then you find out that one is missing. 

Do you remember that you aren't supposed to take a copy of the wedding document? Well, that's bad news. As you now have to print off another one. And get it signed. But one of the witnesses has gone back to Canada. One is dead. And one has legally changed their name to BX4989 and gone to live in a commune of people that are transforming themselves into cyborgs. But via email, fax, letter, seance, and invading the commune and beating BX4989 until they remember what their old name was, you get a perfect copy of the document, all ready to go back off to the registrar. 

But you're a bit busy. So you give it to the Best Man to post.

Six hours later, in hilarious circumstances...

Monday 17 May 2021

Week of Prayer for People Doing the Acts 2 Reading for Pentecost

This week the Beaker Folk will be focusing on the Week of Prayer for People Doing the Acts 2 Reading for Pentecost.

We have a theme for each day:

Monday - meditations on Psalm 45: "My tongue is the pen of a ready writer"

Tuesday - meditations on Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord?"

Wednesday - "Spare them, Lord" 

Thursday - Meditations on Psalm 90: "O God Our Help in Ages Past"

Friday - How to pronounce "Pamphylia"

Saturday - All-day practice

 Last year we tested 10 people doing the reading in real-world conditions, ie a load of people watching them through Zoom going "Fridge-ie? Is that where fridges come from?" And we mapped out the panic levels of the readers against different place names. And we found that, early on, people are quite happy - "Parthians" isn't too bad - but there's that sudden acceleration from Medes through Elamites to Mesapotamia. After that there's an undulating but high level of panic. But as people go down the gears through Egypt and Libya, knowing there's the easy ground of Jews and Arabs (at least in linguistic terms) to come - getting side-swiped through by "Cyrene" is all too easy. These tests were run with the NIV, but we did a limited comparison with the King James, and "proselytes" is the real killer. Is it "prose-lites"? Or "prossel-ie-tees?" 

So spare a prayer for the people reading Acts 2 this week. It's gonna be a tough one.

Panic Levels Through Acts 2

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Living Part of Their Lives in the Sky

"...two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”"( Acts 1:10-11) 

 Francis Pryor, in his autobiographical book centered on the Fens: "I owe a great deal to John Clare. He opened my eyes to the subtle yet enduring beauty, not just of the fenland landscape but of ‘the vaulted sky’ above. It’s a world whose inhabitants aren’t confined within surrounding hills and valleys – because there aren’t any. So they do indeed live part of their lives as it were in the sky."
Mural of the Ascension

Which I find interesting, as one who grew up in the relatively hilly land of the eastern Chilterns. In the big river valleys of the East Midlands: the Great Ouse, the Nene (pronounced Nen), and the Welland, before they hit the fens, the villages tend to be on the top of the hills, as that keeps them safe from floods. And so not for nothing is Cold Ashby in Northamptonshire so called - it's on top of a hill. In the Chilterns, the villages and towns tend to be in the valleys, as they are less concerned about flooding, what with the chalk.

So people of the Chilterns don't look at the sky so much - a lot of it is hidden from view by the Downs. If you want to get a good view of the sky, you have to climb up a hill. Which is what the disciples and Jesus do on the day of the Ascension: Jerusalem being a hilly place, they go up to the Mount of Olives. Which in those days was relatively quiet - a little way out of Jerusalem. Where they get a good view of the sky.

The Mount of Olives was - and is - a place of burial for devout Jews. Most famously in our time, before the state of his Pension Fund was discovered, of Robert Maxwell. So maybe in a way the Ascension from the Mount is saying that Jesus has conquered death. After all, all the best people, the cream of dead society, are buried there on the posh cemetry hill. But Jesus, the man executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed tomb, is the first person back out. The last, after all, will be the first in the Kingdon.

And so Jesus leaves, exit stage up. And the disciples, up there on the Mount of Olives, stand gawping into the sky and presumably expecting him to come back down again.

And Luke mentions, in his matter of fact way, that there are two men dressed in white. Now, don't let the literalism of the modern critics distract you here. These aren't 1st century cricketers, looking up and wondering whether they'll have a bit of decent movement in the air. They're angels, sure enough. Angels are God's messengers. And they have a very specific message for the disciples. Stop gawping into the sky.

Remember Peter at the Transfiguration. Wanting to build tents on the mountain so Jesus, Moses and Elijah will stick around with him there. Wanting to hold that moment. But Jesus stops being dazzling while, and they go back down the mountain, and head for Jerusalem. And now here they are on a mountain again. And the disciples were hoping that Jesus was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. And maybe they thought the Ascension was just one more miracle on the way. But the angels say, he ain't coming back just yet.

Jesus, the disciples are told, will return the way he came. Do the angels mean he'll come back to the Mount of Olives? Will the resurrection start there? Is that where our Lord will be seen again, as it may or may not say in Zechariah 14? Or do they mean simply that Jesus will return in glory? 

Either way, the message for now is clear. As John Stott puts it, "their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers." In effect, do what Jesus said. Get back to Jerusalem, pray for the Holy Spirit. And get out in his power, to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. Don't just stand there watching the sky. Because he's not coming back today, whenever he does come back. Not that we can't look to the skies to see God's glory. Just don't waste your time watching for his return.

In fact, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus is busy. Our High Priest, our God and our fellow-human, is in heaven, knowing how weak we are and how much we need God's help and praying for us and putting forward our defence. Our defence being that he is one of us.That's how special it is to be a human being now - there is one in heaven, with holes in his hands and side and feet, saying he knows we did this to him, but he forgives us so why shouldn't his Father?

And so the Ascension sets the pattern for how we should be Church. Pray for the blessing of the Spirit. Receive the Spirit. Get out in the power of the Spirit. Love each other, care for the poor, preach the Gospel. Do it all in the power of the Spirit. Do it knowing that Jesus is representing us to the Father. And, however much we should look at them to praise God's glory. There's no point in looking - he'll come when he's ready.

 * Mural of the Ascension, Chapel of the Holy Name, All Hallows Wellingborough. By Hans Feibusch

Tuesday 11 May 2021

From a Hug to a Plague

Much excitement over Boris Johnson's latest advice that we can now hug. I've been trying to point out that hugs were never illegal, and whether you thought one outdoor cuddle with granny and grandad was worth sending them to the grave ten years early was very definitely your own decision.

But still. Turns out our Prime Minister, whose own problem has always been refraining from too much personal contact, has declared we can now hug our relatives (or presumably other people's) as long as we do it cautiously.

Now the way I see it, any single thing on its own isn't a big risk. Which is why Little Laurence Fox's way of celebrating his mid-life crisis by encouraging overweight, ageing men to stand quite close to each other - but not that close, there's none of that going on - ain't the plague apocalypse that more cautious people think. It's just one event. I mean, it's not like the Government would plan to encourage hugging while reopening indoors entertainment, and would let people get plastered to the point when sensible precautions break down, and tell students not to wear masks, is it?

Ah. As you were.

Quite how one hugs cautiously is really one for the philosophers to decide. I know early on when Burton Dasset was saying human contact was important, he rejected the all-body "hug suit" that I got Young Keith to knock up for him. Said it had no means of letting air in or out. Well, surely that was the whole point. So we built him another one with a one-way air valve. But of course he blew up like a Zorb. Which was, after all, the whole point as well. He still couldn't hug anyone.

But now we can hug our grannies, the Beaker folk say, can we reinstate the handshake of peace? And of course the answer is no. The handshake of peace encourages congregational mingling. It rapidly spreads anything on someone's hands to every right hand in the place. And you've got to get within a sensible inter-personal distance (6 or 7 yards in my opinion) to do it.

OK, they said. What about just shake hands with the person 2m up the Moot House? Well, the thing is - that may be all right for the shaker. But what if the shakee is not so keen? Their rights need to be considered. You don't want to force your germs on an innocent non-shaker. Leave them alone. We did build an app, where you could match willing handshakers up and leave sensible people alone. But the Beaker Fertility Folk modified the settings and next thing you knew, everyone was out in the long grass behind the Moot House. Worst idea since a Northampton newspaper ran a shock-horror article reporting on all the local dogging sites. With precise directions on how to find them and when they were busiest.

No. We will not be reintroducing the handshake of peace just yet. We will stick with the Curt Nod of Recognition of Peace and the Embarrassed Half-Wave of Peace.

I am happy to announce, however, that the Beaker Socially Distanced Quire (we've been making the drummer play in the Doily Shed since 2008) have written new words to that old "We like being modern but not too modern" worship song, "Spark to a Flame", which they'll be singing Sunday.

Hugging with cautiousness
But not too close
Lurking infectiousness
Bothers me most.
Handshakes are recklessness
Nods are still cool
And still no "Kiss of Peace"
Don't be a fool.

Covid's not flu
It's still out there.
Contact is foolish, not brave.

Don't wreck it now
Let's not be so vague.
Don't let things go from one hug
To a plague.

Sunday 9 May 2021

Love and Biscuits

John 15:9-17 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

 It's said that when St John was a very old man, having written Revelation and got back from exile in Patmos, he was too old to walk, and to do much talking. So his disciples had to carry him to church, and all he ever said was, "little children, love one another" because that was all that was worth saying.

Jesus's key commandment in this Gospel, and especially in this long passage set at the Last Supper. Love each other. 

And you think to yourself - it's so hard. You look across the socially-distanced distance to your fellow-worshippers, or (if viewing this sermon via a screen) you think about the people whose little heads you saw on the last Zoom meeting, and you think - really? Them? Even the one I fell out with over who got the last biscuit last time we had coffee back in February 2020? I've been really upset about that biscuit. A whole year since they had that biscuit. And they don't even like Hob Nobs like I do. I really wanted that biscuit.

But Jesus starts with these surprising and remarkable words: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."

Let's stop for a moment and consider that.

According John chapter 1, "the Word"  was with God in the beginning. Before anything was made - because in fact everything that was made, was made through the Word. And then the Word became "flesh", and lived among us - as the man Jesus, called Christ. Jesus tells us that the Father loves him, and so he loves us in the same way.

Quite astounding is that. That the love the Father has for the Son through all eternity is now opened out to us.

I like the fact that Jesus then refers to the disciples as his "friends". Somehow that makes the idea of his love for us more personal. We're not kind of passive recipients of God's love, like we might be fond of a goldfish or a hamster. As Jesus's followers we're his friends. There's a feeling of mutal love there. Mutual respect almost. It's described in other places as an adoption - in Galations and Romans. We are not like pets or servants. We are like children or friends.

The love God expects us to share - it's not the kissy-kissy kind of love. It's not even the sort of love where you do something for them because you like them. It's more focused, more deliberate - a love generated in your will, as much as in your heart. It's easy to love the people we find lovely. It's often but not always easy to love the people in your family. But the person who pinched the last Hob Nob? 

But God expects to bear fruit - remember the grapevine from last week? -  bear fruit that lasts, in what we do and what we say and how we treat people and how we give time to God and each other. Kind of regardless of what we think about them. So forgiveness and kindness. There's a difference between forgiveness and Christian loving kindness and being exploited, by the way. We are called to forgive. But we're in God's image and we should be able to expect to be treated with respect.

 Lastly - in all we do. Remember that Jesus chose us. That's good news for me because sometimes I'm up, sometimes down. If my relationship with God depended on me, it would be a terrible car crash. Sometimes we feel so close to God - sometimes we feel like God doesn't exist or God must hate people like us. Instead of which, Jesus chose us. And if he chose us he was right. Doesn't really matter how we feel on any given day. It's not about our emotions, it's about God's faithfulness.

You notice that? All this flows from God. Jesus loved us as the Father loves him - so we must love each other. He chose us - so we can go and bear fruit. All that flows from God is grace. And all the fruit we produce is a response. So love God. Love each other. And love will be the thing that lasts forever.

Saturday 8 May 2021

A Wet Mother Julian of Hazelnut's Day

Today we celebrate Mother Julian of Hazelnut, Old English mystic and seer. Who introduced mustard to Norwich.

And I remember with fear the old Husborne Crawley weather-saying, "If it be wet on Mother Julian's Day, Southampton will beat Liverpool away".

We are a bit concerned that the sheer amount of rain that has fallen has made a mess of the fruits of our ritual hole-digging yesterday. We were going to cast deliberately-broken pottery and Beaker weapons (pointy sticks) into them, together with the hazelnuts we saved from last autumn to plant now. But now we've got an orchard full of holes, full of water, and it doesn't seem such a good idea.

I'd be a bit down over this. But I shall comfort myself with the words of Julian herself. All is wells. And all will be wells. And all manner of things will be wells.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Reformation Martyrs Day Revised Collect

 I see from the old wall calendar that today is Martyrs of the English Reformation Day.

Where the good old C of E (copyright Church Mouse Publishing) prays as following:

Merciful God, who, when your Church on earth was torn apart by the ravages of sin, raised up men and women in this land who witnessed to their faith with courage and constancy: give to your Church that peace which is your will, and grant that those who have been divided on earth may be reconciled in heaven and share together in the vision of your glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Which is a very Anglican way of saying "fault on both sides". I mean, some of those martyred were, let's face it, pretty happy with the other side being martyred. 

This also being Star Wars Day (May the 4th etc) it's a bit like hoping that Darth Sidious and Princess Leia might be buddies in the Grand United Force Where All is Made Well.

A more accurate collect might be:

... when all's said and done it was a bit of a mess. Frankly we can't see how even your mercy could forgive someone who sets fire to somebody or allows them to be cut into pieces just for a difference in belief that most people these days couldn't even explain very well. We don't know and can't judge whether some of these people will be reconciled in heaven or the other place. I mean, Thomas More's a great example. Always happy for someone else to be incinerated for the good of their soul but gets his head cut off and suddenly he's a saint? Really? And look at Cranmer. Chucks Cromwell, and Catharine Howard under the bus, but ends up with his name in the lectionary and a college named after him. Durham college, obviously. So, over to you... 

Or, better still, let's be very English. And just pretend it never happened.

Sunday 2 May 2021

The True Vine

John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunesso that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."

In 1992 a containerload of plastic bath ducks fell off a cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean and the ducks - for want of a better word - escaped.

Over the following years, they washed up all over the place. Some went North to Alaska. Some went south to Australia. Some snuck through the Bering Straits into the Atlantic. One made it to Scotland.

Which tells us two things. One, that plastic is terribly durable and we need to be careful what we do with it. And two, that this world is a connected thing. What you do in one place can have an unexpected effect a long way away.

As the world is, so the Church. Jesus draws us this mental image of the church as a vine. As with "I am the Good Shepherd", the image has deep Biblical roots. The people of Israel were referred to as God's vineyard or God's grapevine. Normally in the context of some judgement or another. Because it's being asked does it bear fruit? Very important in vine husbandry, does it bear fruit? As vines aren't much use for anything else. You can't make a nice chair out of the wood of the vine. You can just about get some benefit by burning it on the fire. But that's not a return on your investment when you wanted to make a nice Sirah wine.

The vine is an interconnected thing. Jesus in saying "I am the vine" is identifying himself with Israel. All the promises that were made to Israel in the past were pointing to Jesus. And remember that means the Jews were never rejected. We are grafted into God's holy work in progress. And if that happens then we form part of the whole plant - being blessed with it, suffering with it.

Now you can get a bit hung up about "pruning" here. And it worries me when they say "all the suffering you get is God's plan for your life". I remember someone coming to me after my parents died in that tragic hay-bailing accident. And a member of our Extremely Primitive Methodist connexion came round and had that gormless pious smile he used to have, and said, "God will not try you more than you can bear. It will all turn out for good in the end. Trace the rainbow through the rain." And I turned to him, with the tears falling to the floor, and I smashed him in the face. I tell you, no jury would convict. Maybe God works through our tears and pain - but that's a consequence of the world we live in. God would much rather work through our joy and love. But we live in a broken world.

"Pruning", it strikes me here, is about the ongoing work in our lives that God enters into. I have no idea if pruning hurts a grape vine. If I think a lot about it, I consider that a sentient vine with a central nervous system would get rather grumpy about it. But would be unable to resist, to be fair, not being a thorn bush or a nettle. But since they're not, they mostly just buckle down and keep growing. Maybe moaning in a viney kind of way. But pruning is about encouraging fruit. Everything about a domestic vine is about encouraging fruit. You prune a vine in winter, when all the energy is in the roots, so as not to hurt it too much. You cut back to the strongest bud. You want all the energy from the roots come the summer to go in the right direction. And I've been intrigued, visiting the wonderful New Lodge Vineyard of Earls Barton, to see just how hard they cut the vines back in winter. They know the vines need a lot of work - and then they can produce a lot of fruit. It's a labour of love, not of cruelty.

And I know I need a lot of work. I know we all can. Because God wants us to produce fruit. Which St Paul tells us is made up of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We can't produce all that lot on our own. Or at least I can't. Or maybe a bit, some of the time, for people I quite like. But Jesus says, stay in the vine. Go with the programme. "Remain in me", says Jesus. Be part of the vine - whose branches include so many other people - and know that you're all working together. If a vine grows well, all the branches will be strong and the plant as a whole will produce fruit. If a vine is sapped, it's weakened, or it's damaged, all the branches will suffer. If the leaves are in full daylight, they will pull the nutrients through for the rest of the plant.

So look after each other. You are all part of one vine. You all have the one rootstock. You are all engaged in the same holy purpose. Stay in Jesus, because he gives all you need. And know, as you bear fruit in the way you behave, live and work - that you'll bring glory to Jesus's father.