In the Listening Booth.

I would get no prizes for telling you that the way people listen to music has changed massively, but the blindingly obvious aside, a recent visit to a record shop, or at least the music floor of a large media store, reminded me of a visit I made to a record shop a long time ago. As a teenager I had tried to listen to ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison and had no got it at all. I took the copy I had bought and sold it to a record exchange and immediately regretted it. Much later he released a live album (‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’) recorded in the summer of 1973. I wanted to buy the record but wary of my experience with ‘AW’ I wanted to hear some of the record before buying. Next stop the top floor of a shop where there were loads of records and a line of listening booths along one wall. I asked the assistant (who was probably thinking ‘who is this idiot who doesn’t get ‘Astral Weeks’?’) and he put the record on. I got to the booth in time to hear the stylus descend onto the vinyl and Van went into ”Ain’t Nothing You Can Do’ and I was hooked! I am not going to say that I went home with that double LP and a copy of ‘Astral Weeks’ but ‘ITLTSN’ has remained one of my favourite albums.

As most things are cyclic these days maybe some enterprising record shop owner will re – install the listening booth (maybe this has already happened!) and restore that physical aspect to engaging with a piece of music – in my earliest experiences of listening these places provided a place where music was valued for itself. Of course the shop keeper hoped that you would buy the record (and who among us has not bought a record on the strength of one track?) but both buying and listening to music then seemed more of an occasion than it is in this age of streaming and play-listing. Nostalgia is always a strange thing and these days, although I listen to a lot of new music, I find myself drawn back to the music I first heard in the listening booths in a shop called Whites and Swales in a Northern town what seems like a life time ago. Maybe age furnishes a better perspective, or maybe music was just better then (discuss!!).

But in all this talk of listening I am aware that I often hear without listening – conscious of the music and its creators, but quickly passing over it to something else. As always I am learning (or re – learning!) the value of returning and of listening carefully. As I have said before music is too precious to be reduced to a commodity or a soothing (or manipulating) background. And, as if to provide a convenient example of this, I returned to ‘Astral Weeks’ later and discovered the masterpiece it always was!

man wearing gray sweatshirt and headphones

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All good things…..

Like millions of other people on this planet I went to see the film ‘Avengers Endgame’ last week. I have already written here about my ambivalence towards the MCU behemoth and how it is light years away from the lovingly pulpy comics that I loved as a teenager. But I found the film incredibly moving – in fact the acting and writing in the first half of the film was so powerful I had a lump in my throat! (This is not surprising, I watched Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain from 1952 on the YouTube last night and the sheer exuberance of the dancing and the joyful smile on his face brought a tear to my aged eyes!). But, to return to the kostume kapers of the MCU, (there are no spoilers here!!), these films are genuinely apocalyptic, not only in the sense that there is a lot of fighting and smashing of just about everything, but also in the sense that they reveal something about what is sometimes called the endless struggle between good and evil.

But here we are light years away from a simple binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (and this is something that I think that Marvel at its best pioneered), the good guys are prone to doubt and the struggle between Tony Stark’s ‘suit of armour’ around the world idea and the idealism/ doubt of Steve Rogers was, for me, one of the best things about these stories. And the mad Titan Thanos, for all his genocidal bluster, has to be one of the saddest villains I have ever seen – all he wants to do is retire to his farm!

Maybe one of the many messages in these films (forgive me but I am always wanting to look below the surface!), is that sometimes you have to stand up – the plain fact of the matter is that there are bad people all over the place (and the political stasis in this country seems to be bringing them all out of the woodwork!), and they have to be challenged, not just by the costumed heroes of popular franchises, but by the countless acts of human kindness that are perpetrated every day by ordinary people. These usually happen in the mundane – the place where only a person’s humanity and their need matters.

But now like all good things this phase of the MCU has come to an end and many people wonder what the next step is. I came across an interesting article today about the grief that people sometimes feel when their favourite franchise comes to an end;

“Psychiatrist Sue Varma believes that the reason we get so upset is because the heroes represent hope to us. “These characters have journeys not unlike our own. It’s a form of empathic mirroring”. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, a cultural historian and fandom expert, agrees, but places an emphasis on the escapism that becoming invested in these fictional worlds offers: “We are swept into another world for the time we are engaging with the media. Knowing that the hatch to that world is permanently shut because the show or movie has ended can feel like a loss –not necessarily because of the actual vehicle, but because that part of our life has ended.”  

When I was a child and there were only three TV channels I always used to watch the Saturday and Sunday matinees on the BBC. These films were my first encounter with cinema and I remember my sadness if the hero, or heroine, didn’t make it to the end of the film. It took me a long time to come to terms with these sorts of endings, and as I grew up I found myself in another story where the hero’s life  and death are not the end but the start of something completely new. I do not know where the MCU will go next, but I do know that death and resurrection (or beginnings and endings) are part of everyday life, from comics to headlines, to big budget blockbusters and the seemingly small every day human stories that we all know so well.

A long time ago someone wrote about the light that had come into the world and how this light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (some put it that the darkness did not understand – or ‘comprehend’ the light – sounds like a certain purple villain to me!). I suggest that in these days when many familiar things seem to be coming to an end there is hope here, not just for a new phase in a film franchise, but for the human journey – with all of its false starts, difficult endings and new beginnings.

(The article by Marianne Eloise quoted above comes from the New Statesman website from a few days ago).

All roads lead to Duluth.

opened bible on wooden surfaca

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It’s funny how one thing leads to another. For a long time I have been an admirer of the pianist/ composer/ educator Ben Sidran. He has been active for many years now from the piano chair in Steve Miller’s Band to his own solo career as a jazz musician. His albums have often occupied the middle ground between pop and jazz and his considerable abilities as a composer and soloist make each of his records a particular joy. One of his more recent projects has been the album ‘Dylan Different’ where he takes twelve of Bob Dylan’s songs and interprets them with a crack band. This record is, like all his others, a rare treat and I would recommend it warmly. But as I listened to it, I found myself sent back to the originals, or most of them.

I have lots of Bob Dylan records but I don’t listen to them as much as I should – sometimes they strike me as the product of a mind that doesn’t seem to care less about them once they are done. This does not mean to say that they are ill conceived or lyrically unconvincing, every record contains at least one or two gems. But Dylan can be capricious; he sometime discards great songs in favour of others, and his career often veers off in what seems like odd and unexpected directions. Who could have foreseen that the singer of songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘Masters of War’ could have become the latest interpreter of the Great American Songbook? I once called Dylan a master of ambiguities and I think that term is apt; he is never where you expect him to be, which I suppose is the mark of a great artist. Anyway, Ben Sidran’s ‘Dylan Different’ led me to the following songs;

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ to listen to the original reminds me just how although these early records came out of a ‘folk’ background, the rhythm section is a frantic mix of rhythm and blues and rock and roll – and let’s not forget the voice and the lyrics!

‘Tangled Up in Blue’/ ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, two songs from a dark record, in ‘Blue’ the first line of the lyric “Early one morning” starts in the folk tradition but the story that unfolds takes me in a different direction, again there is the understated instrumentation that puts the story (and the storyteller – Dylan’s own description of what he does) front and centre. ‘Twist’ has an understated but effective bass line shadowing Dylan’s guitar and again there is a compelling story about star crossed lovers and the accidents of life and fate. The final verse sums it up perfectly;

“People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring, but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate”.

‘Standing in the Doorway’/ Trying to Get to Heaven’, two great songs from the great ‘comeback’ album. Every time I listen to it I find this record very moving, there is something about it that is hard to quantify. The songs seem to be haunted by illness and mortality, and faith. I defy anyone not to be moved when Dylan sings (in ‘Doorway’) “I know the mercy of God must be near”. Personally, I feel that that line shows a deeper faith than that exhibited on his so – called ‘born again’ recordings! ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ (before they close the door) is another gem. It’s gospel inspired piano/ organ and the slight dub – like guitar line and the singer’s fabulously cracked vocal is again, something I find really moving.

‘Changing of the Guards’ / ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). Two songs from an album which I think is quite under rated in the canon. The first is an apocalyptic/ historical mash up which seems to about the inevitability of massive change. Those in the know suggest that this song marks Dylan’s move towards the particular brand of American evangelical Christianity he was soon to embrace. And ‘Senor’ has all the hallmarks of a classic, apart from the “trainload of fools brought down in a magnetic field”, its atmosphere of (colonial?) menace reminds me of a long youthful trip to an airfield in the south of England to see Dylan (and others). All I can remember are the awful toilets and a man in a top hat on a stage in the far distance!

‘New Pony’/ ‘Every Grain of Sand’. Finally, a song from the ‘Street Legal’ album that I always skipped when I bought the record. Despite the slightly odd lyric this song has a rare sort of charm, perhaps it’s author was telling someone else’s story (Could it be true that Dylan has made the business of unreliable narration into an art form?). My final song here is an out and out masterpiece. Recorded for the album ‘Shot of Love’ it is a song that, again, I find very moving in its discussion of faith and mortality. The line about ‘every hair’ and ‘every grain of sand’ both channels words attributed to Jesus (in the context that, to quote Mother Julian “all things will be well”), and fills them with a new and urgent sense that, even for an artist like Dylan, faith is all we really have.

Bob Dylan’s life and times has been endlessly chronicled and his every move (and word) endlessly detailed and discussed, but personally I find many of his songs as moving as they are infuriating. When Daniel Lanois the musician and producer of ‘Time Out of Mind’ described him as ‘eccentric’, it could qualify as the understatement of the century! Yet the songs remain and as I was thinking about the photo I chose I obviously thought of Dylan’s use of biblical imagery, but then it occurred to me that his songs are like a map (with the story teller as the weary traveller!) that we can follow as we listen. These songs are a remarkable witness to the collision of life, fate, love and faith. It is surely the best testimony to a musician’s art to say that very time you listen you find something new, and in terms of his influence on music and culture it must be true to say that all roads (still) lead to Duluth.

The Shepherd and the Valley.

I have wanted to write something about the twenty third psalm for a long time now. As a working minister I read it a great deal and it was mostly read at funerals. Its very ubiquity lends it a powerful resonance when sitting with people who, through no fault of their own, have little or no knowledge of the bible. But it is also this ubiquity that leads to the psalm being almost ignored for the great piece of writing it is.

One way of reading the psalm is as a Lenten exercise, the Good News Bible renders the first line as “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need”. In a season (indeed, in a world!) where plenty and scarcity jostle together and where many ‘give up’ some things in order to focus on other things, the theme of confidence in the provision of shepherd Lord seems to be particularly relevant. Then there is the theme of protection; especially in the ‘dark valley’ or the ‘deep darkness’ – this experience of danger and darkness is a Lenten experience. Observance of Lent and Holy Week include reflection on death and resurrection and indeed these themes reach their climax with the stillness and desolation of Good Friday. Then there is the way that the psalmist points the reader to the overwhelming care of the shepherd God. This hospitality is described by Robert Alter in his beautiful translation/ commentary as “all the physical elements of a happy life – a table laid out with good things to eat, a head of hair well rubbed with olive oil, and an over flowing cup of wine” If that list needs to be updated than I’m sure we could all find our own alternatives. For me this is a criticism of all other pretenders to care and provision, even those in the political and, yes the religious sphere. And I am struck by the way that this care is provided “in the face of my foes” reminding us of the way that ancient customs meant that the guest was entitled to protection – the psalm offers us this picture of a pilgrim God who is a constant traveller across the hilltops and down into the dark valleys guiding and protecting – often at great cost.

Finally, I have sometimes found myself reading these words in the dark of night as well as in the midst of physical darkness and turning the song into a series of questions; Lord, will you be my shepherd? Will you make sure that I lack nothing? Will you lead me beside the still waters and will you restore my soul? I sometimes wonder whether this approach is appropriate but I feel that this song is given to be sung again and again to give perhaps a faltering witness to the God who has promised never to leave us and to travel with us regardless of the landscape and no matter where the road may lead us. This is a feeling summed up for me in the hymn by George Matheson ‘O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go’ – that sense that divine love will not let anything go;

“O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be”.

The beauty of the psalmist’s words are such that every interpretation, indeed every reading, can include these things but will also always bring us back to an image like the one below – care, dependence, the often harsh experience of the land and the sky, and the care of the shepherd.

white sheep on farm

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The Forest and the River.

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Tollymore Forest sits at the foot of the Mourne Mountains and I suppose that it’s most recent claim to fame is that it is one of many locations in Northern Ireland used in the HBO ‘slice and dice – athon’ that is ‘Game of Thrones’ (Perhaps I should just say that I enjoyed the first two books in George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic – but the TV show has largely passed me by. I should also say that hereabouts you could throw a stone and find a location which says a lot for the beauty and wildness of the place, and the inevitable cost of the footfall!!). With that qualification out of the way, we walked in the forest last week in between showers and I was struck by the peace and beauty of the forest and the Shimna River that runs through it – it is a truly magical place.

Of course Tollymore is an artificial place, formed and shaped by human imagination, but for all that it is still possible to touch something wild and natural by walking there and breathing the air. We walked though the Victorian folly by the river (one of the children following us thought it looked like a ‘troll house’) and came to the stepping stones. Midway across the stones I was struck by the pattern of the water passing by the stones – arrow shaped ripples and rivers stones glistening in the clear water. Stepping stones are interesting for a variety of reasons both practical and spiritual, they mark a place of crossing from one shore to another, or from one set of attitudes to another.

As I crossed the stones I was acutely aware of the need to both balance and look for the next stone! Without wishing to take anything away from the simple exhilaration of being out in the fresh air, I thought that crossing the stones was a good metaphor for my journey from one place to another whilst all the time life (like the river) rushes by. In fact it could be argued that the life of faith is about seeking those (mostly) firm places to stand as you move through the different phases of life. Also just being in such a magical place is a reminder of the essential goodness of the natural world and how much it has to teach as the forest and the river both point back to that ancient voice that called it all into being and announced that it was good.

A reflection on Holy Saturday.

The first question I want to ask is what is Holy Saturday? The easy answer is that “Holy Saturday is the day before Easter and is the date during Holy Week when Christians engage in preparations for Easter services. Among Anglicans it is typically referred to as Eastern Even (Easter Eve) and among Filipinos as Black Saturday. Eastern Orthodox Christians call it The Great Sabbath because Jesus “rested” in the tomb on this day. Sometimes it is called Easter Saturday, but that is incorrect – technically, Easter Saturday is the Saturday following Easter.

Some early Christian legends recount how the “Harrowing of Hell” occurred on this day. While his body lay in the tomb, Jesus visited hell to rescue the many just and good non-Christians held there. This descent into Hell created a way for all those born before Christ to be redeemed, thus eliminating the problem of teaching that good people would be tormented for all eternity. However, some Christians believe that Jesus only went to Sheol or Hades because this place of shadows is a temporary place whereas Hell is a future realm to be accessed after judgement. In the very early Christian church, Christians would normally fast during the day and participate in an all-night vigil before a baptism of new Christians and celebratory Eucharist at dawn. During the Middle Ages many of the Holy Saturday events were transferred from the night-time vigil to dawn services on Saturday. Modern Catholic churches observe Holy Saturday by severely restricting all religious observances. Altars are stripped bare. No sacraments are administered except in emergencies, for example, if someone is close to death. Neither weddings nor funerals are held. This is the only date in the liturgical calendar on which masses are not held. On Holy Saturday the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb, and meditates on His Passion and Death and His descent into Hell. With prayer and fasting we await His glorious Easter resurrection. Mary is also a Holy Saturday symbol. According to Catholic tradition, Mary represents the entire body of the Church. As she waited in faith for the victorious triumph of Her Son over death on the first Holy Saturday, so we too wait with Mary on the present Holy Saturday. This faithful and prayerful symbolic waiting has been called the Ora della Madre or Hour of the Mother.

This is clearly an ‘in-between’ time after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection. As has been suggested earlier it is ‘a liturgically sparse time of reflection’. One writer has even gone as far as describing Holy Saturday as ‘a day of atheism’ (Alan E. Lewis), because, as one reviewer of Lewis’ book (‘Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday’ W. B. Eerdmans 2003) puts it; “Jesus is dead, his message and person discredited. The kingdoms of this world have won, and the God Jesus trusted in is seen either to have failed Jesus or as ultimately powerless against sin and death”. It is only against the background of Jesus death and the failure of his mission that the glorious mystery of the Resurrection can be fully appreciated.

It could be argued that life itself is full of these ‘in between’ times. Between birth and death for example, as the songwriter Joni Mitchell puts it in her song ‘Hejira’ (1977);

“I know- no one’s going to show me everything

We come and go unknown

Each so deep and so superficial

Between the forceps and the stone’”

There are also the years of childhood and adolescence, times of great change and development which can be both a time of difficulty and maturity. Without seeming too flippant, what I have called ‘in between’ times can be found in the most ordinary experiences, the reading between starting a finishing a book, or the walking between the start and the end of a journey. If you want to look at the biblical narrative think for a moment of the desert experience of Israel, their ‘in between’ time lasted for 40 years. They wandered as a result of their inability to appreciate God’s love but they also learned a great deal about divine provision for them both in their imprisonment and the ‘freedom’ of the desert. These ‘in between’ times can lead to impatience but they are essential if we are to learn the lessons of life, for example when making a journey we can be so fixed on our arrival that we can easily miss the insights to be gained on the way. Robert Louis Stevenson may have been thinking of this when he said ‘To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’.

But then I also want to take a cue from the insight I mentioned earlier and see Holy Saturday as a ‘waiting time’, it is a day when we just have to sit still and not do anything. Sometimes Christians seem to live in a continuum where everything is happening at the same time, yet the gospels and church traditions ask us to be patient and enter into this story and honour it. This means keeping Easter Day for Easter Day and being content to be where we are now. This may seem artificial but Christians have always followed the season of Lent and the time of Holy Week as a devotional exercise that honours the story and lead us into its meaning step by step. Some see the church itself as an organisation in waiting. In an article in the ‘New Yorker’ magazine called ‘Confessions of a Church Goer’ the novelist John Updike wrote this; “The future is not just an extension of the past; like a particle being measured, it eludes prediction. Judaism and Christianity are both religions of waiting-waiting in one case for the Messiah, in the other for the Messiah’s Second Coming. Christian time is an interim, which has stretched linger than the prophets and early saints expected. Something might happen in faith’s future”

Even the most cursory examination of a concordance will show you how important the theme of waiting is in the Judaeo Christian scriptures – my favourite is from the prophecy of Isaiah;  “those who hope in the Lord……those who look to the Lord” (REB) and  “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (NRSV).

Waiting has some very negative connotations, waiting for something seems to be nothing, a ‘no space’ where nothing happens, a space we fill up with all sorts of things to distract us, but Christian spirituality demands that we pursue a sort of active waiting, a sitting still in prayer and reflection until God is revealed. I suggest that this attitude is summed up very well by the Welsh poet and priest R. S. Thomas in his poem ‘Kneeling’ which is short enough to quote in full;

“Moments of great calm,

Kneeling before an altar

Of wood in a stone church

In summer, waiting for the God

To speak; the air a staircase

For silence; the sun’s light

Ringing me, as though I acted a great role.

And the audiences

Still; of all that close throng

Of spirits waiting, as I,

For the message.

                         Prompt me, God;

But not yet. When I speak,

Though it be you who speak

Through me, something is lost.

The meaning is in the waiting”.

My final reflection here is a familiar one. These verses may not seem appropriate for Holy Saturday but they illustrate the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, that place where knowing is partial and where it will be complete. Holy Saturday is a place of waiting but it is not somewhere we are meant to stay because we are on a journey towards the light and one day, as Paul writes; “At present we only see puzzling reflections in a mirror, but one day we shall see face to face”. Easter Day holds before us that tantalising glimpse of God’s ‘new thing’, that new reality which is both the present state for the faithful and the ultimate destination of everything. But for’Holy Saturday’ there are no voices and we must wait in silence.

(The John Updike quote is taken from ‘Confessions of a Church Goer’ ( The New Yorker Magazine/ The Guardian 8th January 2000). The R.S. Thomas poem from his ‘Collected Poems’ 1945- 1990 p. 199). And Isaiah’s words are from Isaiah 40; 27- 31. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians in the 13th chapter of his first letter).

Between the cross and the tomb.

yellow cosmos flower in green cross wooden decor

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Today is Good Friday; part of the climax of Holy Week in the Christian calendar. As I have done my best to journey with Jesus through these cataclysmic events, one question nags at me; was the cross really necessary? Some point to the utter depravity of the human race that required a blood sacrifice to put everything right but I lost patience with that view years ago. The God that view reveals is certainly difficult for me to comprehend! For me the cross is the place where Godself took on the mess of creation and worked within it to bring in the light. Indeed I believe that unless God was intimately involved then the cross means very little. I see Jesus as a courageous pilgrim whose trust in God was so strong he was willing to make that incredible sacrifice. That is courage I find it hard to imagine!!

This year I have been helped in my thinking this year by revisiting a book of sermons by the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas called ‘A Cross Shattered Church’. He writes;

(Jesus) died on a cross to reveal the very heart of God. The cross is where God’s life crosses our life to create life otherwise unimaginable’.

 Our meditations can be helped by the church calendar, yet if we are honest the impetus towards the mystery of the resurrection is very strong and it takes a great deal of discipline to stay with the cross and all its horror and desolation.

As a Christian preacher I am supposed to be a bearer of hope, yet the cross is the end of all hope. As a Christian preacher I am supposed to bring the light and the consolation of the gospel yet both seem to be in short supply today. The cross is the ultimate failure where the mystery of resurrection can only be understood by embracing the mystery of selfless sacrifice.

What else can be said about the cross? There is nothing else to say for today, the blunt fact of the cross and the retelling of the story must be enough, as must the conviction that where Jesus has travelled we must follow. Stanley Hauerwas expresses it like this;

“All we need to know is that Jesus Christ is crucified. He is nailed to a cross. That cross, moreover, is destined to become the icon of God. No matter how hard Christians strive to confirm our illusion that we can follow Jesus without suffering, we confront the stark and brutal reality of the crucifixion. We would like to believe that the crucifixion was some terrible mistake. A failure in communication, but the reality is unavoidable. He was crucified”.

Today the victory of the cross must be deferred. We cannot have the illumination of Easter Day unless we are ready to stay in the dark for a while. We cannot proclaim ‘The Lord is Risen’ unless we are ready to enter into the desolation and abandonment that Jesus experienced. Finding the courage to bear the ignominy, brutality and darkness that surround every Calvary is essential as we travel towards the light of resurrection. But that, as they say, is another story for another day!

(Stanley Hauerwas’ book was published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 2010. The quotes are found in the sermon ‘Was It Fitting for Jesus to Die on a Cross?’ on page 60). 

 

 

Holy irony Batman!

I was waiting in the post office today and I noticed that the Royal Mail is issuing a set of stamps featuring characters from Marvel Comics – then in the ‘paper I saw a photograph of workers dressed as superheroes delivering ballot boxes in Indonesia. The pulpy heroes of my youth (who now grace the ‘big’ screen in various iterations) have now entered into the mainstream. They are now (to use an overworked expression) ‘cultural icons’. But, as part of Christian worship ‘icons’ are meant to be looked through, so what we see as a result of this popularity? Is it ‘dumbing down’ once high brow culture, or a clever stroke of creative genius that saw artists and writers simply recasting tropes from myth and legend in new clothes (or figure hugging spandex if you prefer!). Is it evidence of the human need for heroes – people who will be like us but also markedly different (or gifted) and who will make a difference. Or, is it, in the case of ‘Superman’, the invention of a godlike figure part redeemer and justice maker (think of the last part of Superman’s Kryptonian name!). Whatever it is, these heroes are now a firm fixture in the cultural landscape for good or ill.

Although like many I am looking forward to the conclusion of the ‘Infinity War’ story when ‘Endgame’ is released at the end of this month, I am also (like many of my age) pining for the days when these comics were pulpy things printed on cheap paper and bought and swapped in various shrines to teenage angst. Places where we glimpsed the incredible potential of these imagined universes, and places where we knew that we could make a difference to the world. I miss the the market stalls and the cramped shops where coloured costume capers opened up a new way of creating wonders – these are places which will never return (except in imagination or Stuart Bloom’s shop in some sitcom or other!). But every time a new film hits the cinema and some hero (or heroine) takes on the forces of darkness, comes close to defeat or even death, but then rises to create new hope, those early comics live on at least in imagination and memory. They are echoes of a greater story about darkness and light that, on Maundy Thursday, remind us  that although the darkness may seem to be absolute, the light is coming!

My Lenten Journey.

bird s eye view photography of road in the middle of desert

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Some years ago in the churches where I was minister I started a series of short public reflections on what I called ‘The Lenten Journey’. It followed the weeks of the season and was composed of prayers, readings and silent reflection. Several of those who took part were gracious enough to say that they appreciated the time but some (deep in an evangelical tradition!) wondered why I was doing it. Surely, they said, the cross and the resurrection are what really matter, isn’t marking this season a bit ‘Catholic’ or a bit ‘high church’? Thankfully what I experienced as a slight suspicion of anything that sounded like silence (!), or reflection has largely disappeared but as I mark my own Lent this year the importance of these things has come back to me with renewed force. As I sit in silence with the bible or a Lenten reflection I realise that everything is grace and I just have to accept it.

The seasons of the Christian church are tremendous gifts given (as with Lent and Advent) for preparation. They suggest that the feast of Christ and the mysteries of Easter should be prepared for, that they are too important to be dived into, much less ignored completely. But Lent can be a difficult one, it has been associated with giving things up and with privation – the word that is hanging around here is of course ‘mortification’ which carries with it uncomfortable echoes of death! After years of preaching in Lent I have come to see that it should be about giving things up and reflecting both on our mortality and on God. The prophet Isaiah reflects on the immutability of the divine word compared to all living things; “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field….the grass withers and the flower fades…” (40. 6 – 8). So if we give things up for Lent (like chocolate or alcohol), it should be because we want to make room for something, or someone, to renew our focus and our faith.

This is why the desert sojourn of Jesus recorded in Matthew 4 has often been the touchstone for this season. Like him we set ourselves to journey through a different landscape, or rather we look at familiar landscapes in a different way. Lent can be a time when the sheer fragility of our humanity comes into focus, a time when many familiar signposts have disappeared and when, through ill health or doubt, the road seems to be obscured (as in the photograph above!). However this time of privation and uncertainty can be a time of revelation, it can be a time when we realise that we are not alone but that the God who has promised to be our Emmaus companion is still there. And it can remind us that the road is still there, once the  sand has blown away! The theologian Frances Young reflects on the way that experiencing darkness and difficulty can be the way to a fresh recognition of divine presence; “it is often on those deepest moments of darkness that people do actually sense the presence of God – and not when everything’s going smoothly – that Jesus is a kind of demonstration of the presence of God in the darkness, and of God taking responsibility for the darkness”.

Any Lenten journey means travelling through some difficult territory; confronting our own mortality, looking for fresh signs of divine presence, and at its climax, daring to stand before the cross before the mysterious light of resurrection breaks in. That is why it is important to mark this season, however you chose to do it. This is not just because (cliche alert!) ‘life is a journey’ but because, as T. S. Eliot warned;

“…..you neglect and belittle the desert.

The desert is not remote in southern tropics,

The desert is not only around the corner,

The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,

The desert is in the heart of your brother”.

You do not have to look very far these days to see the truth of those words. Lent opens us to that truth, but also shows us the companion who has promised to travel with us, if we will have him. I close with a prayer by Thomas Merton that I often turn to and especially in the season of Lent;

My Lord God, 
I have no idea where I am going. 

I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 

Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. 

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, 

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, 
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. 

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, 
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

****

(Frances Young was in conversation with Gerald Priestland in his book ‘The Case Against God’. I came across it in a marvellous anthology called ‘The Little Book of Lent’ published by William Collins. T. S. Eliot’s words come from his ‘Choruses From the Rock’ in his ‘Collected Poems’ from Faber and Faber, and although I have searched for the origin of the prayer by Thomas Merton I cannot find it! Those who might like a different view of the desert experience of Jesus might want to read Jim Crace’s superb novel ‘Quarantine’).

Preach!

brown book page

Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

In the Christian tradition I found myself in as a teenager a great deal of emphasis was put on having ‘a call to preach’. When I encountered this at first I was quite unsure, I had run the gamut of jobs in the Methodist Church (Sunday School, youth group, bible study etc.,) and had discovered some facility in leading and speaking but preach the gospel? All the unhelpful stereotypes fell into my mind, and some of them are quite pejorative (perhaps summed up in the phrase “don’t you preach at me’). There is often a sense of superiority in the idea of preaching to others, as if ‘the preacher’ has an inside track on divine purpose, or is made of stronger stuff than those who are the listeners. I read in church and felt very comfortable, this was something I could do. But it wasn’t long before people I trusted were asking me whether I felt I had a call to preach – and this was something I felt should have tested and in Methodism this consists of receiving a ‘note to preach’ and going on to a period ‘on trial’ and I remain grateful to those who were mentors to me during that period.

I started to preach regularly and I soon discovered both the privilege and cost of this action. I came to see preaching as not so much imparting what I had discovered in my exploration of scripture but inviting those who heard me on a journey of discovery – in a sense preaching is an incomplete act – although the sermon may end in a particular act of worship the journey of preaching carries on in the preacher and in the church. This thought is summed up in a comment that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made when asked how long it took him to prepare a sermon – he suggested that the whole of the preacher’s life is preparation (I have not been able to find this quote). I find great solace and challenge in those words and when I stand in the pulpit these days as a supernumerary minister I still feel that this activity (along with worship and praise) is the highest activity I can give my time to. Even when I was in full time work I felt that preaching was important and could not understand colleagues who downloaded sermons from the internet or prepared their ‘sermon’ in the vestry before the service began.

One contemporary book about preaching compares preaching to giving blood. It is a book that I have only dipped into but the author (Leonard Sweet) suggests that although the metaphor of blood is not politically correct he writes; “If blood is the liquid bearer of incarnational life, preachers are homiletic haemophiliacs……bleeders of the Word….If when you’re finished preaching you’re not spent, wiped out – if you haven’t ‘given blood’ you haven’t really preached”. Even I quote these words I am aware of their deep challenge to something that is often taken lightly or even dismissed by congregations and by preachers themselves. I hear of preachers who seem to offer a mix of stand up comedy and homily in an effort to appear popular, leaving congregations wanting something of substance. Preaching is too important to be delegated to a ‘preacher of the year’ competition – an irony when incarnational preaching seems to be disappearing from the church! – it is meant to make scripture live, to revive the church and to offer encouragement for the journey.

I started this post after preaching my first full service in the Irish Methodist Church, an experience that reminded of me of the privilege and cost of this act – as I stood in the pulpit I felt I was in the right place, a place I was called to long ago, and a place I am still trying to understand. The worship went well and was well received, one member of the congregation said they found it ‘challenging’, but my question remained; did it give glory to God, or in Leonard Sweet’s terms did I ‘give blood’? These are open questions of faith and trust and a good sermon is still “thirty minutes to raise the dead” as someone once said.

Soli deo Gloria.