Goodbye 2013

So it’s goodbye to the old year. And as so often, we see it out at the Flat, with no internet access (except a paltry bit via smartphone without a very strong network signal – so no chance of actually uploading a blog post until we go home on 2 January…)

It’s been a funny old year. I turned 64. (Will you still need me, will you still feed me?) I travelled abroad three times, which must be unheard of in any previous year: to Hamburg for Kirchentag in May, to North Carolina in August for the Network of Biblical Storytellers Scholars’ Seminar and Festival Gathering, and to Prague in October for a week’s holiday with Alison.

Alison’s youngest sister Gill died in August, completely suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 53. As I reflect on my life which has always seemed ridiculously fortunate and sheltered, and in which I have always craved meaning among the highest goods, I can think of very few things that seem completely senseless. Gill’s death is one of them, however. Her funeral brought the whole family unusually together, which was good. But better, would have been from a better cause.

And then in December, Esther and David presented us with a fifth granddaughter, named (eventually!) Elspeth Jean Brandon. She was born on 5 December, which would have been my old mum’s 93rd birthday, so it’s lovely that she bears mum’s name as her middle name.

And what has the year been like, in terms of discipleship, spiritual growth, the walk with God, or however we might call it? How can you measure progress, if what you have been called to is “a long obedience in the same direction”? (Eugene Peterson’s lovely phrase.)

The most significant thing in the life of the church at Marston was our appointment of a new organist with energy and ambition, who has successfully brought the choir on to achievements most of them never dreamed of. The music has been wonderful, culminating in a Christmas season (which isn’t yet over! until 2 February) which was exciting, inspiring, yet also somehow strangely serene – and I’m not sure whether that is about a kind of ‘flatness’ of emotion, or instead an arrival at some state of blessed repose.

Meanwhile Alison and I both became cursillistas after attending Cursillo weekends at Ely: Alison in May and myself in November. This signals, or is part of, a (re)new(ed) intention to deepen our prayer, walk more closely with God, and a desire to encourage a passionate spirituality within the congregation. We are planning to share during 2014 some of the ideas for Christian life coming from the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a contemporary application of some of the themes of Celtic spirituality.

Remembrance Sunday Sermon

Walking a Tightrope

Come and join me, up here on this tightrope. Because that’s what it feels like, on Remembrance Sunday, that we’re walking a tightrope, trying to balance the different themes that we want to embrace in our service.

On the one hand: a 100% longing for peace, a detestation of war, a cry to God that war may cease to be known upon earth. On the other hand: a remembrance of all those who have died in war, including those who served in the armed forces, whose lives and deaths we want to honour and give thanks for.

Those who pray above all for peace, are sometimes anxious that too great an emphasis on the courage and sacrifice of those who fought, may somehow be understood as glorifying war, making the possibility of peace more remote. Those who want to remember the courage and sacrifice are afraid, that if we emphasise peace too much, we devalue the sacrifice of those who died, and somehow suggest that their deaths were in vain.

And of course we don’t want to fall off in either of those directions. We want to give full weight to both – as long as that weight is a balance, rather than one that makes us fall off.

So first: Peace. Surely there can’t be any doubt that God’s real desire is peace. No matter how much war there is in the Bible, as nations contend with each other, and the little nation of God’s people struggles for survival – that’s just the reality of history , the ultimate aim and promise, is that there will be peace when God’s rule and God’s law are fully known.

Micah 4.1-4
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Isaiah 9.5-7
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

We believe that the Prince of Peace has come, Jesus is that Prince of Peace, bringing the possibility of reconciliation between human beings and God, or rather showing that God has given himself, made the final sacrifice of himself, in order to reconcile us to himself. His grace, his undeserved love, reaching out to us, you and me, Be reconciled, let’s make it up, stop fighting against me, and against all the good there could be in the world, all the blessing that there could be for the whole of creation. Stop fighting, be reconciled. But we know how far the world is from hearing that message and believing it; the work of mission has only just begun; even people who call themselves Christians have not yet learned to live as God invites us to live.

And then, remembering the dead. My niece has recently been posting on the internet some pictures of her grandfather, my dad, taken during the Second World War. He’s in uniform, smiling, with comrades, sometimes sporting a funny little moustache that looks like the first one I tried to grow, in South Africa, the Middle East, Italy. He’s 21 or 22 years old. (Anyone here?) Well, Dad survived the War (else I wouldn’t be here!) But when we read out the names of those who didn’t, let’s bear in mind that many of them were even younger. They were boys, young men, sent into battle by their country and its leaders. Some of them may have been those who joined up with great excitement and enthusiasm to experience a great adventure. Some of them may have been called up when their turn came, and been terrified. We’ve learned a bit about how terrible conditions were in the trenches of the Western Front, and the terror and seeming hopelessness of going ‘over the top’. Yet they did their duty. And though historians and others still argue about the justice of various wars, we want to honour those young men and what they did; and all those who have fought and died in subsequent wars: Second World War, Korea, Northern Ireland, Falklands, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan. That willingness to do their duty, to serve their country, to face the danger, is still a thing to honour.

But let’s not be coy about this. We often talk about how they gave their lives, to cushion or conceal the truth. I don’t suppose any of them wanted to die. Their lives were taken from them, often by appalling violence and with appalling cruelty and pain. And that’s true also of all the other casualties of war, the civilians and the non-combatants, which is why we also remember them today: the names we shall read out stand for those many more thousands, millions of victims.

As we seek to do this, let me share some statistics to bring this up to date. Remembrance Sunday isn’t just about remembering what we call the Great War, but all the later and still current ones. According to Wikipedia, List of ongoing armed conflicts, there are currently 12 armed conflicts causing 1000+ deaths per year, and 30? fewer than 1000 deaths – ‘or unknown’. Most of those don’t really involve us, perhaps, but what about this? During the past half-century, Britain has fought more foreign wars than any other country. During Tony Blair’s premiership, he sent British troops into battle five times in six years. And since the end of WW2, British troops have been killed in action every single year except one (1968) So commemoration is just as important as ever. And as we commemorate, we remember this further statistic: Of today’s ‘war dead’, only 1 in 10 is a soldier. 90% of the victims of war nowadays are civilians, and half of them are children. Isn’t this why war has to stop? Why we need to pray and work all the harder towards that end?

Of course, we like to think, or we hope and pray, that all the actions our troops are involved in at this time are peace-keeping, or peace-making, operations. If our involvement in that war succeeds in helping make a country a safer, better place for its people, is that worth the cost in lives and material resources? If we could leave Afghanistan in a condition of true peace, shalom, in which they might be free from the power of religious fanatics who shoot teenage girls in the head for wanting to go to school? Who murder women teachers, because educated women present too great a threat to the men with the guns? It’s heartbreaking that this has proved to be an unwinnable war; that we have to walk away from it with no certainty that they will have that peace. Iraq is an even more tragic example, in which it has become clear that the intelligence that took us to war was just wrong. And now part of the delayed cost of getting rid of a (let’s admit it) particularly nasty tyrant, apart from the lives lost and the financial cost, is the threatened extinction of Christianity in many of those middle and near eastern countries. Iraq, Syria, Egypt – all used to have important and ancient Christian churches, even though they were minorities. But now those Christians are facing such persecution and attack that many are leaving or giving up. There is the real and tragic possibility that they may cease to exist within our lifetime. How much is the West’s willingness to go to war with those countries responsible for that outcome?

What all this recent history should encourage us to do is ask the question: Is there a better way? Is there a better way than war, or force of arms, to resolve international differences? Exponents of the just war theory say that war should only ever be a last resort. It seems to me that we have been too quick, in the last quarter-century, to resort to that last resort. It should be a last resort which, increasingly, we never go to. For the sake of those war dead, nearly half of them children. For the sake of the millions of other war victims who aren’t dead, just bereaved, forced to become displaced or stateless persons who have lost every material thing they ever had. Isn’t all that suffering far far too high a price to pay for any victory, or more often no victory at all?

Let me finish with this piece, written by Bill, a Second World War veteran.

The Veteran’s Lament

So here we stand again. A year has passed.
Once more our sorrow turns to millions killed.

What have we learned?
What do you say to us, dear soldier
from your eternal silence?

Do you implore us to improve our killing efficiency,
to make bigger and better bombs,
condemning millions more to your sad fate?

Do you cheer us on in our blindness?
How many thousands have we added to your number, this past year?
No – I hear you plead now. I hear you cry to us across the years:

‘Weep not for me but for those yet unborn.
Go! – save your own children from my fate
Go! – thank me, by walking away today
to reject the futility, the waste, and the lie
that you have repeated over and over
even as you stand
for where do your billions go,
if not to ensure far more will know the hell I knew?
It is too late for me.
I have no voice but yours,
please – speak for me.
So, when you stand here again,
when this next year has passed,
come here in certainty
that you have taken some small step
along a different road…’

Bill, World War Two veteran

Legends of the Fall

Yes, the boring truth about my mishap in Prague is that I tripped up a very small step, fell flat on my face, cut my face on the rim of my glasses, and ended up with two stitches and an interesting black eye.

But hey, this is Storyteller’s World, and each day that passes reveals any number of alternative versions and tellings of the story. Here are some of the possibilities:

1. The Gritty Urban Realism Story
I was mugged. A group of local skinheads mistook me for an elderly (the cheek of it!) foreign tourist, and assumed (wrongly, as it happens) that I would have lots of dosh in my wallet, which they relieved me of. In an alternative but equally untrue version of this story, I took six of them on single-handed and they fled without my wallet, and with injuries much worse than my own.

2. The Romantic Middle European Historical Story
As above, but substitute brigands or highwaymen for skinheads, and riding in a coach for walking the streets of Prague.

3. The Judgement of God Story
The reason I didn’t see the step that laid me low, is that I was in too much of a hurry to get in to the bank – whose step it was – to get cash out of the ATM. This was the disciplinary chastisement for being so intent on the possession of earthly treasure.

4. The Freudian Story
There is no such thing as an accident. The reason I dived on my face was my subconscious self-hatred for my pride, vanity, avarice, advancing years, selfishness, or . Or my desire to show off, gain sympathy, make myself or my Prague visit appear more interesting, get to see the inside of a Czech hospital,

5. The Hieromachy Story
A friend in Church Stretton said he’d heard that I’d been in a fight: ‘vicars fighting’ as he put it. Which vicars were fighting? and why? Here is another fruitful seam of story-mining. Perhaps I was dismayed by the Anglican Church in Prague omitting ‘filioque’ from the Nicene Creed, and stood up against the church leadership there, on behalf of the Western Church. More blood has been shed for much less… But it may have been a different cause of contention altogether.

6. The Inebriation Story
(Kindly suggested by a clergy colleague) Too much brandy? No, this man could not be drunk, it was only 10 o’clock in the morning.

Interested in other versions or stories? Let me know what you think, or if you’ve got any better ideas.

Prague: 2 Top Travel Tips

Prague was our first experience of a central European capital. At first sight we didn’t fall in love with it the way we did with both Venice and Florence. Perhaps they represent the warm South for us, and it’s Italy we will always love best? But no, for when we then enjoyed a couple of days when the sun shone on Prague, and its citizens came out and walked on the sunny slopes of Petrin, we thought, Maybe this is a place we can come to love too.

But for visitors to Prague, here are my Top 2 Travel Tips:

#1 Watch your step!

The pavements and streets in Prague are very uneven, a British health and safety official’s nightmare. Many of them are cobbled, and in many places the cobbles have lifted and are lying around in heaps and holes. In addition to this there are flights of stone steps leading up to doors of churches, museums etc., usually without any sort of handrail. I spent the first six days of our stay warning Alison (and myself) to watch carefully where we were going.

What laid me low in the end was a tiny step about three centimetres high. With my eyes on the bank door to which I was heading, I tripped up a step that was hardly there, and with the perfectly relaxed slow motion (according to Alison) of an old man or an infant, I fell flat on my face.

#2 Museums and galleries don’t open on Mondays

We’d been planning to visit the part of the National Gallery that’s housed in the Trade Fair Palace. Instead, we ended up spending several hours in the nearby hospital waiting for four X-rays of my face, and then 3 stitches in a cut cheek.

It could have been much worse (as they say): I could have put my hand out and broken a wrist or arm; I could have broken my nose or cracked my skull or got bits of broken lens in my eye.

But even as it was, the unexpected tourist experience of spending a morning in A & E was not adequate compensation for finding that the gallery was closed on a Monday.

Marilyn and Me

Our friend Geoff celebrated his 60th birthday with a party last Saturday. One of the fun things we were invited to do (along with eating, drinking, talking and just being with friends) was to complete a quiz he had compiled of events in his birth year of 1953. I thought I had a good chance of doing well at this (competitive? moi?) seeing I was a child in the 50s and all. And sure enough, this is what Geoff wrote in his email to those who were there:

Some of you had a go at our 1953 quiz. Jim and Sally and John all did remarkably well with 25 correct answers, but Tony and Alison just pipped them with 26 – the vicar’s knowledge of 1950s Playboy magazine covers came in useful to score that winning point!

Of course, it was a bit of a guess that the picture on the cover and centrefold of the first issue of Playboy magazine, in that year, was of Marilyn Monroe. Or did I really remember, subconsciously, that it was indeed this iconic image which was such a part of my 1950s childhood?

I've removed this famous image of Marilyn Monroe so as not to offend the offendable, or anyone likely to be surprised to find it here. It's THAT image. If you don't know the one I mean, you can find it easily enough e.g. on Wikipedia's article on Playboy.

I’ve removed this famous image of Marilyn Monroe so as not to offend the offendable, or anyone likely to be surprised to find it here. It’s THAT image. If you don’t know the one I mean, you can find it easily enough e.g. on Wikipedia’s article on Playboy.

The story is this:

Back in the War, my mum was evacuated to Morecambe with the whole of her department of the Civil Service. While she was there, she met a dashing Yank who was ‘over here’… a certain Captain Fred Adams. She was quite swept off her feet by him, and I think was hoping the romance might really come to something… until the day when a letter arrived from a Mrs Fred Adams, saying in effect: Don’t get your hopes up, dear, he has a wife and children back home in the States.

But after Mum and Dad were married and blessed with a son, they kept in touch with Fred Adams, who was then a merchant navy captain. And some time around 1954, he visited us in North London when his ship brought him to our shores.He brought with him, as a gift, a calendar with That Iconic Image on it: a ray of bright sunshine in austerity Britain.

Somehow or other, it didn’t get thrown away at the end of the year, but was carefully rolled up and kept in a cupboard where, as years went by, I would secretly visit it from time to time.

When, many years later, we came to clear Mum and Dad’s bungalow, the Marilyn calendar was still there – as was also the 1940s letter from Mrs Fred Adams. My sister Sally later asked me, What happened to that calendar? Well, naturally it went away with my share of the keepsakes we divided between us. That kind of heirloom should be inherited by the oldest son, don’t you think?

Word From Nowhere

At 0920 this morning I walked into the kitchen and a word popped into my head from nowhere. Does that ever happen to you? Why would a word do that? Where does it come from? Why is it so often such a strange word, that you can’t imagine why you suddenly thought of it?

The word was (wait for it) Bashi-Bazouk.

By now you may be thinking the only possible answer to those questions is, that I am totally mad.

According to Chambers, Bashi-Bazouk is a Turkish irregular soldier [Turk basi-bozuk wild head]

and Wikipedia adds

A bashi-bazouk or bashibazouk (Turkish basibozuk, or delibas, literally “damaged head”, meaning “free headed”, “leaderless”, “disorderly”) was an irregular soldier of the Ottoman army. They were particularly noted for their lack of discipline.

So… what kind of words spring unbidden into your mind?

That Was An August That Was

Our August was an emotional roller-coaster of a month.

We started with Sam and Dan’s wedding at St James’s New Barnet. Sam was a member of St Nicholas, Marston, before she moved to Barnet last year. I was thrilled when she asked me to conduct her wedding service, not least because it took place at the church Alison and I attended when we were first married back in the dim and distant. I just led and said the words, while Alison took part in the excellent eclectic choir, singing among other great pieces Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas.

After the reception we drove to Heathrow and stayed overnight at the Premier Inn there, so that I could catch the early flight to Charlotte, NC, to attend the Network of Biblical Storytellers Scholars’ Seminar and Festival Gathering. While I was there, Alison went to Norwich to stay with a very old friend (in the sense of, a friend she has known for a very long time) which was a great time for her, but also emotionally draining as they talked about some of the traumas they have both lived through over the years.

Reunited again at home, we thought we would have a fairly quiet month while less was going on at church. Instead, we had Tilly’s baptism to attend at Haddenham, with two services to lead at Marston on the same Sunday.

We headed off to the Flat for a couple of days’ break, and there on the Tuesday morning received the shocking bad news that Alison’s sister Gill Shutt had died suddenly the previous day. She was only 55, and leaves a husband and three children the youngest of whom is 10.

So the last two weeks of August were taken up with this emotional tempest, along with all the parish activity which included the children’s Holiday Club.

Gill’s funeral took place on 2 September in Cwmbran, where she lived.

We would be glad of a quieter, less emotionally up-and-down, kind of a month to recover.

NBS Scholars’ Seminar

The NBS (Network of Biblical Storytellers) Scholars’ Seminar, held for two days before the annual Festival Gathering, has now been running for 10 years. It describes itself as “a dynamic community made up of storytelling scholars and scholarly storytellers”. Some participants are academics working in seminaries and universities, others are professional storytellers, or clergy who seek to use biblical storytelling in their ministry. The purpose of their research is to develop new understandings about how telling the scriptures, a process which involves learning them by heart and performing them without the script in front of you, can enrich biblical studies as well as the everyday life and faith of Christian people. This new paradigm for biblical scholarship has been called Performance Criticism.

Most participants at the seminar are American, so I was pleased to be invited to attend the seminar in 2012, and to be invited back this year. The NBS scholars are keen to involve more overseas participants and to spread the word about the new paradigm outside the USA.

The participants in this year’s seminar included
Scholars: Tom Boomershine, Amelia Boomershine, Richard Swanson, Phil Ruge-Jones, Everett Fox, Marti Steussy, Cynthia Park, Whitney Shiner, Gary Vencill
Storytellers: Pam Faro, Tracy Radosevic
Ministers: Tim Coombs, Dina Ferguson, Jason Chesnut, Carole Danby, Tony Price

The main theme of the seminar was the Creation Stories. We heard a number of creation myths from different cultures, including a sexy and scary rendering of the Enuma Elish, told from the viewpoint of Tiamat. Alongside this were tellings of Genesis 1 and 2 and other biblical creation narratives, in various versions, styles and voices, including a telling in Hebrew. A part of the seminar’s work is also to explore ways of presenting the biblical narratives to contemporary audiences in new ways. We had a creative workshop evening, working in groups to create a 10-minute video presentation of Genesis 1.

One of the insights we gained from these varied tellings was the conviction that creation stories, though ostensibly about how things came to be, are far more instructive about their authors’ beliefs about the way things are. This is true about both theological and scientific accounts of creation, and knowing this might help resolve some of the continued misunderstandings between the two worldviews.

We ended the seminar with some discussion about next year’s theme. While it remains undecided, a clear favourite seemed to be emerging, in the idea of going to the other end of the Bible and examining the Book of Revelation, or Apocalyptic in general.