Monday, 28 December 2009

Outward signs

I've been thinking about this one for a while.

When I was actively avoiding anything to do with Christianity -- remember there was around a decade of this -- it was easy to feel inundated by it. Frankly, I find it hard to have much sympathy for people who feel Christianity is becoming a minority faith, pushed to the sidelines. Just try keeping a faith where all the religious holidays mean you have to take time out of your allocated holiday, rather than having convenient Bank Holidays to help out with the major ones. Try having your strictly-kept Sabbath a day earlier than that of the established religion and finding that some of your local shops don't open on your other weekend day because of Sunday trading laws. The "secular" world in this country is still very Christian, from the perspective of anyone trying to follow Jewish law. And while I think changing public service adverts so that they don't have the word "Christmas" in is rather silly, I find the assumption that everyone is Christian very grating, too.

My experience of Christianity growing up was not the worst I have heard of, but it did lack the space for me to ask questions. My exposure to people who talked about their faith anywhere other than at church was limited to those who were quite evangelical in a "going around trying to save people" sort of way.

Something I've noticed recently is that my reactions have changed.

There was a time when seeing various Christian posters and advertisements -- you know the ones, they come in varying degrees of fundamentalism but tend to contain a passage from scripture and seem to be meant to encourage people to convert -- made me feel hounded or shouted at. Now I'm a lot calmer, and sometimes even take some comfort from the passages quoted.

There was a time when seeing someone wearing a cross or crucifix around their neck would make me feel quite uncomfortable, quite wary of that person. That was certainly a prejudiced reaction on my part, but one based on my previous experiences. Seeing someone wearing overtly Christian jewelery made me feel I had to brace myself for the possible barrage of being told what I ought or ought not do to be saved. I felt defensive. Again, I'm now a lot calmer; when I see someone wearing Christian jewelery, even the "let's go convert heathens!" fish, I mostly take comfort from the idea that this is someone trying to follow a set of values, someone trying to be kind and do what is right, and they may not always have the same interpretations as I do but at least they're trying. Or sometimes the cynic in me despairs that they may only be wearing a cross because it's fashionable.

The odd thing is that I've never much had trouble with clergy wandering around in collars, cassocks or whatever else their particular tradition asks that they wear. I suppose my stepdad being both clergy and in the military got me accustomed to the idea of "uniform" pretty early. As a musician, too, there are specific and distinctive working clothes I'm expected to wear on some occasions. But jewelery, bumper stickers, posters... these all seem optional, and when I was avoiding Christianity I found them intrusive and threatening because of the implied criticism I imagined they carried, the perception on my part that anyone who subscribed to this faith would set out to convert me.

I don't wear much jewelery myself. For several years I had a necklace an ex-boyfriend had given me, and I wore it always; eventually it broke and was lost. As a teenager I had a series of very simple rings, always for the middle finger of my left hand, but these too broke or were lost. I have a pearl necklace my mother gave me, a pendant and chain Intrepid Anthropologist gave me for a graduation gift, and a lovely glass snake that Sweetie gave me; I don't wear the first two often because they seem too special for every day, and I don't wear the third because I don't have an appropriate chain for it. My ears were pierced when I was 11 but it is several years since I even owned a pair of earrings; my skin tends to be quite sensitive so I had to stop wearing the earrings I had.

I've been thinking I'd quite like to wear something which reminds me of God... something I can wear all day most days, which I can feel, something symbolic... but I don't necessarily want it to be something which will mark me out as Christian. Why not? Well, partly because of my own experiences of feeling defensive. I don't want anyone to feel that way around me and I realise that many people would, including some of my students. But it's also because I still balk at labels, I still balk at being called Christian -- not only because I do not wish to be associated with the more harmful interpretations of Christianity, but because representing Christ on earth is a huge task, one at which I would almost certainly fail. I don't want to be associated with the negative aspects of Christianity, but I also don't want Christianity to be stuck with my mistakes. When I forget myself and act unkindly, when I am tired and make poor spending choices, when I am selfish -- I don't want the stranger on the street to lump that in with Christianity.

I can think of a few different symbols that will mean something to me but aren't so overtly Christian as to cause anyone any distress. There's no rush.

But I don't know whether this shyness on my part is right. I don't know whether my reluctance to label myself "Christian" despite increasing involvement with the Church is right. I don't know whether my reticence to identify my faith in a public and outward way is a symptom of fear, in a society which increasingly derides all theist religion and expects people to parcel up their faith and keep it private, or whether it is in keeping with the respect for others' experiences and beliefs that I value so much.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

This is different than the others. There is no "veni", no request to come; and this is addressed very specifically to Mary. But there is an answer, of sorts. I've been thinking about Mary a fair amount since Sunday, partly due to the influence of various bloggers and Sunday's readings, and partly because of the Collect:

God our redeemer,
who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

As far as preparation goes... well, I've done a lot of contemplation and prayer. But I haven't managed to really be ready for some of the practical details of Christmas. Let's just say I'm hoping folks will take a broadly ecumenical approach to the arrival of various gifts.

I understand from Wikipedia that the practice of adding this antiphon is a mediaeval English thing. Common Worship has moved back toward only using seven, but I like this one too.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

How do you draw a picture of hope? How do you draw a picture of Emmanuel, of "God with us"? How do you depict salvation? What does freedom look like?

I couldn't settle on this at all. No photograph seems to capture it; it's like picking up pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but not being able to fit them all together, and having lost the lid to the box. I'll only ever be able to see part of the picture, but I know there is one.

I tried putting about 25 different photos in but that was no good, either; I don't have the skill to pull off the "contemplative calm amidst chaotic busy-ness" effect in a visual medium.

Only one more!

Monday, 21 December 2009

O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

cf Isaiah 28.16; Ephesians 2.14

I struggled to find appropriate visual material for this. I've stuck with fairly churchy artwork so far, stained glass and that sort of thing, and I wanted to continue with that. But I also wanted to find a symbol of kingship that also implied unity, but without actually depicting Christ. I wanted to make it clear that in Isaiah's time people didn't have the images we have now, images of a narrative that has been told and re-told. I suppose a stained glass image of the cornerstone at the top of an arch would have worked, but I couldn't find one, and I'm not a graphics wizard so couldn't conjure one up out of mere pixels and imagination. So you get this instead.

It's about ineffability, I think, and timelessness. Eternity. We observe Advent knowing what is coming, or thinking we know what is coming. Same liturgical cycle every year, right? There's this temptation to think "the created world was one way, and then Jesus came, and then the world was another way." But I've never been able to swallow that. I've never thought God is limited by linear time that way, at least not when I actually stop and think about it. We're so used to being time-limited beings that we tend to view everything as historical. But even the Nicene Creed says that Christ is "of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made." The doxology, that staple of Christian liturgy, makes a similar statement: "As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be." And even if Common Worship has done away with "world without end" I find myself adding it in my head.

I look like I'm talking at cross purposes with myself, first talking about the not-knowing-what's-next of Isaiah's time and then asserting that Christ is eternal. But saying that God is not bound by linear time does not mean that we humans are also free of it. Our story is a historical narrative: the historical narrative of God's revelation to us, through time.

I'm not a cessationist, so I think that revelation keeps going. But it's as important to keep telling and retelling the narrative we've been given as it is to watch and wait and look for continuing signs. Else, how will we recognise it?

Speaking of linear time, I've managed to get this up a bit earlier than the previous ones, but must stop now to go and teach. It's snowing thickly in this bit of London and the pavements are going to be quite lethal, but I'm reasonably sure-footed, having grown up with this sort of weather, and I do enjoy it, the sheer wasteful abundance of so many snowflakes, all different, all beautiful. All cold and wet, but that's what hot chocolate and water bottles are for. Maybe I'll be able to make snow angels in my own garden after all!

Didn't we sort all this out before?

I interrupt my intended program of Advent antiphons... to spend a moment or two going "huh?" at this Anglican Covenant nonsense. I remain baffled by the whole thing. Churches aren't made out of committees following rules, though those may be necessary for the smooth operation of the work of any church. Churches are made out of people doing their best to follow God.

I mentioned it to our Delightful Reader at Nearest Church and she hadn't a clue what I was talking about. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear, or perhaps she didn't really want to talk church politics on the Lord's day -- fair enough, really. I didn't pick up this most recent news on it until today because I haven't been reading much but it has been kicking around for a while now, and I'd have expected Delightful Reader to have noted it if it had any relevance. So maybe it really just isn't that relevant. Delightful Reader mentioned the Lambeth Quadrilaterals, which was before I really got interested in Christianity again so I'm not terribly familiar with the details (though I probably ought to be), and I mentioned that surely things like the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed were also statements of what we as a church believe and that clarifications which are divisive are perhaps unhelpful. There are those who would posit that really, we messed all this up a bit at the Council of Chalcedon.

I don't believe that revelation just stops; I'm not disputing the need for communication between different branches of the church as part of a process of discerning God's will. But it strikes me that all this emphasis on who is in and who is out, who is Anglican and who is not, who is "in Communion" and who is not, is all a bit misguided.

I think I said all I have to say about this in another post, way back in May:

If you must, go ahead and waste your time and energy and money trying to legislate who is a member of your church and who is not.

Dither away. The rest of us have work to do.

Time for me to get on with my bit of that work...

Sunday, 20 December 2009

O Oriens

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.

cf Malachi 4.2

This does seem especially appropriate for solstice. In the Northern hemisphere, from here on the days get longer again.

My favourite part of Morning Prayer, incidentally, is this:
In the tender compassion of our God •
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, •
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

These antiphons don't belong in Morning Prayer -- they're an Evening Prayer thing, sandwiched around the Magnificat. But this one reminds me of morning prayer, and the just-before-dawn, forward-looking feel of much of the liturgy around this time.

O Clavis David

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

cf Isaiah 22.22, 42.7

I've been recording these at Nearest Church. I'm there some mornings to practise the organ anyway, and the acoustic is far more forgiving than the less resonant atmosphere in my carpeted music room at home.

This morning, try as I might, I could not get the door to the church unlocked. Other people have complained about that door, but I've usually been able to use it with no trouble. But this morning? Twenty minutes of wrangling with the lock, and I still wasn't in. I was late for my next appointment so abandoned the project until later in the day... when the lock worked quite easily for me.

The other thing this antiphon puts me in mind of is the mental prisons we so often create for ourselves. We build little walls for ourselves, meant to protect us from situations which are uncontrollable or frightening. That works very well for a time, but eventually the walls we build can trap us. Perhaps that is the prison from which we wait to be freed.

Or perhaps, yet again, it is late and I am tired...

Friday, 18 December 2009

O Radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

cf Isaiah 11.10, 45.14, 52.15; Romans 15.12

Earlier this week I was thinking about my own impatience and the last line of this antiphon. But it is late, and I am tired, and so I'm not going to offer any commentary. Suffice to say that I had a wonderful day on many counts and feel much better for it.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

O Adonai

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

cf Exodus 3.2, 24.12

The second of the Advent Antiphons. I didn't sing as well as I'd have liked, but I'm only allowing myself three takes of each and the other two were worse.

I was going to write something more in-depth this evening, but I'm really very tired again. And anyway, Chantblog has got all you could ever want to know.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

O Sapientia

Hopefully these will get better as I get better at using the software.

Excuse any horrible pronunciations of the Latin; I haven't taken the time to study these as much as I'd have liked.

More over the next several days, I hope!

Saturday, 12 December 2009


I'm thinking about Luke 3:7-18. A friend mentioned a brood of vipers and I went to look it up, early yesterday morning, and it's been rattling around in my skull since.

It's not an easy text, you see. I don't have to preach on it this Sunday -- and I don't think I'm really made for the pulpit anyway. But difficult texts like this make me itch, and I scratch away at them.

It's a bit of a hellfire sandwich, this passage. The middle bit is alright, really.
And the crowds asked him [John the Baptist], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

That's not so bad, really. I don't measure up to that (I have at least three coats) but I can see the principle behind it, I can accept that I should act that way. I think maybe I do a little better with the food. John's response to the tax-collectors and the soldiers is similar: act justly. That seems pretty plain to me, even if it isn't always easy to do faithfully.

But look at what comes before: those parts of the tree that do not bear good fruit will be cut off, thrown into the fire. Look at what comes later: a baptism of fire, the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. Scary stuff.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
This is good news? Getting burned in unquenchable fire? Being cut off from the tree?

So I read back a bit. Just before this passage we have some information that gives time context, and then this:
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

It's that last bit I'm interested in. Isaiah says all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Not just the people who manage to be good. Not just the people who manage to follow the commandments. Not just the people who believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah, the Son of God, God's incarnation on earth... all flesh.

That doesn't seem very consistent, does it?

But if Isaiah can be a poet, surely John the Baptist can, too. Maybe these texts aren't as contradictory as they seem. Maybe the tree which will be cut and tossed into the fire is not one of flesh, but one of actions. Maybe the winnowing of the grain, the chaff which will be consumed doesn't refer to people who miss the mark, but to their thoughts and deeds.

What happens to a piece of paper if you put it into a fire? It gives off some light and some heat, goes up in smoke and dissipates. Is this imagery about the erasure of our mistakes? The generosity of God in overlooking our sins, in taking all that we think and say and do and saying the screw-ups don't count? A selection process, a purification process, pruning all that which is not good in the eyes of God and leaving only love?

Perhaps. But then where do the "bad bits" go? Eternal, unquenchable fire? Is this what salvation looks like?

Modern science tells us that if you burn a piece of paper it doesn't cease to exist, not really. It doesn't exist in a form we'd identify as paper, any more, but each atom still has to go somewhere. They still exist, they've just been re-configured, re-arranged, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle taken apart and scattered on a table.

Maybe this baptism of unquenchable fire is not a process of erasure or purification but one of transformation. Even our mistakes, through God's grace, can be transformed into good. Our thoughts, words, deeds; our relationships, our projects, our dreams; our bodies, scarred and hurting or hale (whole!) and healthy: all will be changed, all will be forged into God's loving purpose, all will be made anew. We are not cut off. We are not rejected. We are transformed. That's how strong God's love is.

And all flesh shall see his salvation.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Protest Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Thursday 10th December 2009

12pm- 2pm

Ugandan High Commission

58-59 Trafalger Square, Charing Cross

London, WC2N 5DX

Like many others, I am disgusted that the current Archbishop of Canterbury has not taken a clearer stand against what is happening in Uganda.

Beneath that disgust lies fear. Yes, I'm frightened. I'm frightened that someone who, in some of his writing, is so inclusive and so clearly cares for the world, can remain silent on this. I'm frightened of my own complicity, my own weakness, my own silence. How many people have died because I didn't think, didn't act, didn't speak, didn't pray? I don't have the power and influence of an archbishop or bishop, or even of a priest or deacon... what will my attendence at a protest do, what will any letter I write do? ...and yet each of them is only one person, each makes a difference.

And therefore so do I.

Lord, have mercy.

As we look for your coming among us this day,
open our eyes to behold your presence
and strengthen our hands to do your will

(from CW Morning Prayer for Advent).

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Digital Economy Bill

I don't know where to start on this one, or on copyright issues in general.

For me, it ties in with protecting artists' rights, with creativity, with generosity. With giving of our gifts freely, with doing our life's work rather than living a sort of financial idolatry. It's about how we assign value. It's about how we assign power.

Charlie Stross on why it's bad for authors. "What about foreign agents representing British authors to other foreign publishers? Hello? Has anyone thought this through?"

Cory Doctorow on why the proposed Digital Economy Bill is bad... "It consists almost entirely of penalties for people who do things that upset the entertainment industry (including the "three-strikes" rule that allows your entire family to be cut off from the net if anyone who lives in your house is accused of copyright infringement, without proof or evidence or trial)"

Copyright infringement would include things like filesharing. The "without proof or evidence or trial" thing is simply terrifying in terms of the precedent set.

Open Rights Group with what you can do about it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Worth it...

I wrote previously that I'm teaching a dear friend of mine and we had a bit of a discussion about whether she should pay me.

That brought a lot of things into focus for me in terms of how I look at money and time and work. I had a lot of talks with various friends in person and online, trying to figure out how to respond specifically and more generally. In the end I came to the conclusion that any money anyone gives me as a concession to the fact that I cannot live on air, rather than anything approaching fair compensation. Money is just not the motivating factor for my work, and I do work based on whether it seems fulfilling and worthwhile, not based on whether or how much I will be paid.

But with that said, with the establishment that money I receive from this student or from anyone is a concession, a gift, I should have been comfortable about it, yes?

What I realised is that I'm really not. It's a little easier to accept money from people I don't have such a strong fondness for, and from people whose financial situation is clearly much better than my own, but I still run into all sorts of internal objections about value and worth, despite the very pragmatic point that at the moment I am not yet earning enough to pay my own rent. That's partly about thinking it's impossible to put a monetary value on human labour, but it's also about thinking I don't deserve the good things of this world, rejecting the gifts I have been given. Since we need money to live in this society, it's in some twisted way a rejection of life. I was thinking about this over the weekend, wrestling with it really. How can I judge what is worthy and what is not, who is worthy and who is not? I can only experience the world as myself -- and that experience says the world has pain and joy, bitter and sweet. And there are people far more deserving of sweetness who only get the bitterness, people who should have only joy and instead endure terrifying pain. And as much as I yearn for joy and sweetness, as much as I have some human drive to meet my basic physical needs, I don't honestly feel I deserve them.

My refusal to engage with financial issues in a constructive way is either a rejection of the world or a rejection of myself. Maybe a rejection of the idea that I have any right to be here...

So, yesterday I saw a spiritual director. I met her a few weeks ago and we had a chat and some lunch and I decided that yes, this would be a constructive thing to try. It's not that I don't think God can tell me whatever God wants me to know about what I'm meant to do, but more that I have such difficulty listening.

I wasn't sure, on my way to our meeting, what I would bring up. So many of the things that were weighing heavily on me a few months ago are complete non-issues now, or issues I'm happy to just sit with and see what happens.

I should have known that the financial stuff would come into it. Really, I should have known. And in the meeting itself I didn't feel like we were getting anywhere. We discussed various social and professional issues around accepting payment for services even from friends, but I've been through those again and again, and they're clear enough, but they are of this world, not of God's kingdom. We talked about opportunity cost, about having finite time to do all the work we might feel called to, about not having the resources to "give to everyone who asks of you" let alone everyone you might like to give to. We spoke of the difficulty for anyone in deciding who is worthy, who is not. We touched of God loving people anyway, spent some time on dependence on God which means that we cannot save ourselves through works or faith or anything else but it is God who saves, but this doesn't mean we can just throw in the towel and stop trying.

It was good to air these things, to go through them yet again, but it didn't feel like there was any sort of breakthrough. I've not been for spiritual direction before, I'm going into this without an idea of what is "meant" to happen or how things work. It wasn't unpleasant, but I was still left wrestling with this idea of how to accept that even if money only seems relevant to me at the most unimportant levels, even if money can never be an accurate indicator of worth anyway, people pay me because they recognise some worth in what I am doing.

About five minutes down the road I thought, "hey, WAIT A MINUTE!... God thinks I am worth dying for, so bugger what anyone else has to say about it. The only one who can accurately judge the worth of any human being is God. The judgement has already been made."

It is late, and I am tired, and I don't know how much of that realisation will stick, how much of it I would have come anyway if I hadn't had yet another conversation about all those surface issues. I suspect this is something I don't get to learn once, but instead will keep tripping over.

But it means I can perhaps put aside my own evaluations of worthiness and my concerns about whether it is right for me to accept payment. The judgement has already been made, and here I am in the world, and let's deal with the pragmatic stuff, like getting to the point where I can pay my own rent. I'm not going to take any money dishonestly and I'm not going to chase after it and abandon my standards of what my housemate has called right livelihood, but I can perhaps accept it a little more lightly, not get so worried about whether I really deserve to be in this world. I can get on with doing the work, even if people insist on paying me. It doesn't have to be an argument, it doesn't have to be turmoil. I have already been judged worthy. So has all creation.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Running, but not really catching up

My computer is back, with a shiny new hard drive. It'll take me a while to finish getting the software I need onto it, but it's very good to have my own machine to work on again, at least.

I've not had much time or energy for else but work, online. I could make my excuses but you'll have heard it all before -- lots of work to do, performances, joint problems making me tired, students requiring extra care and attention at the moment. I started this blog in the last half of the last year of an intensive performance-based degree. I've only ever blogged when I don't really have time!

I'm still thinking of you lot. I'm still playing, praying, singing. Still throwing myself into hymnody, still getting a drip feed of psalmody from the Daily Office, still taking Communion.

Morning Prayer (or is it Evening?) has had lots of the book of Revelation in it recently. I have to say, I know it isn't meant to be literal, and there's all sorts of rich and beautiful symbolism, but this lampstand thing is a bit weird. I kindof like it, even as I think to myself, "Well, you might remove my lampstand from its place if I don't repent, but if I don't repent then surely the only reaction I'd have to a mis-placed lampstand is to put it back again or go to IKEA and get another one... I wonder if the instructions for assembling flat-pack lampstands are as convoluted as all their other ones?" and so on.

I'm loving bits of the daily prayers for between All Saints' Day and Advent. "In the darkness of this age that is passing away may the light of your presence which the saints enjoy surround our steps as we journey on." Only it just sounds wordy when I write it out like that... but when I'm praying it's all about the light.

A dearly beloved friend wants some music lessons, and naturally I volunteered my services. She asked about my rates; I hadn't intended on charging her anything, not a single penny. She isn't comfortable with that, so we'll work something out... but in thinking about how to approach it I've figured out a little more of how I relate to money. See, she said it "wouldn't be fair" not to compensate me for my time and expertise. As a musician, my work doesn't work that way. My life doesn't work that way. If I were to get up every morning and thinking "I'm only going to do any work if I know I'll get fair compensation for it", I would do no work at all. Being a freelance worker means that I have to accept that much of my work is not going to bring me any obvious or direct financial reward; being a musician means I have to accept that the work is worth doing anyway. So I do the work, and see any money anyone gives me as a concession to the fact that I cannot live on air, rather than anything approaching fair compensation.

I'm looking forward to teaching this friend. I've heard some of what she can do... but she gave up participating in music almost entirely a very long time ago and has only just recently started to engage with it again, to practise and even perform a little. She notices the problems, the rusty skills, the uncertainty, and the years of silence weigh heavily on her. I see and hear a musician waiting to grow into who she is, and needing a little help and encouragement -- not a lot -- to get there.

I found an orchid, in a big glass pot. Someone had left it by the rubbish bins. I brought it home, cut back the spent flowering stalks, gave it some water and a nice windowsill, and we'll see if it blooms again.

Hope! saith the holly.

Monday, 2 November 2009

is there a patron saint for hard drives?

Apologies for recent radio silence. My computer broke, on my birthday, no less. This is making it hard to keep up with my usual reading and commenting, which has already been much curtailed because of a busy musical life.

It's going to be around 2 weeks before I get my computer back, I'm told. Thankfully it is still under warranty and so this is costing me nothing.

Yesterday I spent at Leafy Suburb Church. It was wonderful to spend a day singing and visiting with much-beloved friends. As two weeks ago when I was there for Evensong, I was very aware of how much the sense of open acceptance and welcome I have felt there has influenced my journey toward Christianity.

I guess that's part of why I feel so strongly about invitation and inclusion.

There's an entire world more to write there, but I have teaching to do.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

So I did sit and eat.

I realised, talking to Kathryn last night, that it would be a matter of when I decide to receive Communion, rather than if.

Put like that it didn't make much sense to wait. What would I wait for? Being ready? Being worthy? Isn't that somewhat missing the point? If a dear friend sees that you're hungry and invites you in for a meal, you don't stand around on the doorstep with your coat on, wondering if they really mean it.

I'd like to write that it was a profoundly moving experience, that there was some shift in perspective at that moment. That would be dishonest. It didn't feel all that different from my more usual going up and receiving a blessing, except that the wafer stuck to my teeth. I had the same feeling of slightly nervous apprehension beforehand, the same creeping focus on one moment and one moment only and forgetting everything but the presence of God, the same pounding heart afterward. I'd like to compare all the various sensations and ideas and thoughts, take things apart and analyze them until I can find out how this is actually any different, but I can't observe from a neutral position. There is no double-blind test for sacrament. It's as gloriously mundane as every other part of this sacramental world.

And yet... I can say I feel a little lighter, somehow, more buoyant. There's a great deal of relief in just giving in. There was no wondering afterward whether I should have taken part, no throbbing regret about not being able to trust, no wrestling with myself over whether I'd done the right thing. That much, at least, was easy, and I almost wonder what I waited so long for.

That's how I feel now, anyway. It will be interesting to see how I feel in a few days.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


I had a rather lovely chat with Gentle Vicar today.

I explained some of my background -- the difficult, semi-nomadic childhood, the spiritual barrenness of my first experiences with Christianity, the venture into Judaism, some of the factors that made me re-examine Christianity.

We spoke of the changes at Nearest Church over the last little while. Six years ago it was a Forward in Faith parish, complete with flying bishops and no females allowed in the sanctuary. Now it is far more inclusive.

We spoke of many things -- of serving the community, of Creeds, of scriptural authority. It's clear that Gentle Vicar is my kind of heretic! I especially respect that he was willing to come out and say "I don't always know what I believe about X" instead of skirting around the issue with a more general "many people struggle with X". It takes a certain courage to be honest and vulnerable when faced with someone who will in all likelihood pick apart any discrepancies in what you say.

And he said, "What about the Eucharist?" and so I explained pretty much all of my last post on the subject. And I said I was willing to change my mind, but from my current perspective I don't want to take Communion until a) I am allowed according to what the Church says and b) I am in a situation where it is offered unconditionally. We spoke of what "member in good standing of a Trinitarian church" actually means (answer: nearly anything if you want to be technical) and why I'm not willing to fudge on that. We spoke of what is printed in the service sheet compared to what actually happens. We spoke of the messages it sends to others if I take communion or if I don't.

Gentle Vicar doesn't turn anyone away, whether they are baptised or not, confirmed or not, or have three heads, and doesn't give a fig what canon law says about it.

He noted that I had just said, earlier in our conversation, that within the C of E confirmation is not required. Baptised children are allowed communion; I would not be fudging, by my own standards of what the church thinks it allows. I'd be an edge case in many congregants' minds, but not in canon law.

So I'm at a point where my only quibble is that the offer of welcome is not made more explicit. Given the history at Nearest Church (and I've had some hints about this from others I've spoken to, as well) I think I trust Gentle Vicar to know when to take a softly, softly approach and when to do something rash like changing the wording of the notice in the service booklet.

Being an edge case in the mind of most congregants, but not in canon law, means if I don't take Communion I appear to support the status quo, and if I do take it I appear to push the boundaries... I am in a position that is the opposite of where I thought I was. Of course, this isn't actually about what anyone else thinks, and 99% of them absolutely will not be paying attention to whether I receive a blessing or something to eat. But I value integrity and consistency of thought and deed; the messages I send and concern for what others think of me are not quite the same thing.

If I want to send the message that Communion is available to anyone who wants it, I should partake if I feel drawn to do so. Anything else is holding myself hostage from God until the Church does what I want, in much the same way as some parts of the Church attempt to hold God hostage. I can sit on my thumbs thinking up a thousand reasons why I'm not worthy, or throw myself on the Divine mercy and grace without which life would be hopeless.

...but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


This morning I played the organ for one of the hymns at Nearest Church. I had help. Networking Organist handled all the complicated stuff with stops, because the organ has been undergoing repairs lately and I've lost track of which bits work and which bits don't and I'm not quick enough yet to adapt mid-phrase if I realise something is wrong.

It went well.

It's sort of preparation for a few weeks from now, when Networking Organist isn't going to be there and I'm meant to play for the entire service.

Then I went off to Leafy Suburb Church for their Harvest Evensong.

Harvest Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church last autumn was my first ever Evensong.

This evening the vicar asked if I'd like to do a reading. So I said yes, and had a look at the readings, and went for the New Testament one. The Old Testament one was a lovely bit of Deuteronomy but the bit about the strong hand and the outstretched arm always makes me think of Pesach and it was a bit dissonant somehow. So I read Philippians 4:4-9.

A year ago you would not have convinced me that I would be reading bits of the New Testament aloud to other people in the context of a church service.

I am very, very tired. And I have that not-sure-if-I'm-flying-or-falling feeling again, but it feels okay because I also feel very much held in the palm of God's hand. There's a lightness, a freedom to it, a sort of ticklish feeling.

Some of the words keep coming back.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

This is what I referred to yesterday in proclaiming the Gospel by deed and word. I'm not not NOT one for in-your-face pushy evangelism. Partly that's because I have such an uneasy relationship with scripture myself. Partly that's because I don't think it's necessary.

I do think it's possible to make the Gospel known by our words, without going all Bible-quoting at people. If I had to distill my understanding of the Gospel I'd whittle it down to "God loves everyone." And I think making that known through our words means speaking with love and care, even when we have to address hard truths. I have in mind a friend who I think manages to do this better than most, so that I think she must have spent quite some time learning it. It seems to me that she is always ready to point out something good in a situation, always looking for that which can be encouraged and expanded upon. She does not make pointless platitudes; she does not shy away from difficult questions for herself or others and yet she never seems to be attacking. I don't know if this is because of her commitment to truth or her commitment to kindness but I admire it greatly.

Making the Gospel known by our deeds, I'm sure I've discussed before, but I'll have another crack at it. If the Really Short Version is "God loves everyone" then the way to make that known is to treat people with love.

That is a very tall order. It is a very serious invitation.

I have to stop and sleep soon. But it seems to me that to treat people with love is a whole lot easier if you actually feel love for them. And how do you learn to feel love for people you might dislike, might feel threatened by?

I fail at this every day. But when I do manage it, it's because I remember that God created everything, and start looking for what is good r Godly in a person. I might only get as far as 'this is a human being created by God and so deserves my respect and care'. I might not get as far as that.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

That does seem to help. Apparently the "think about" is translation from Greek which could also be "take account of". Take account of what is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy. Count your blessings, in other words.

Not bad advice.

I like that St Paul in his letters addresses people as "beloved" (or this translation uses that term). I love sitting in church and being addressed as "beloved" -- once or twice it has been a very stark reminder that I needed to hear. I discovered, today, that I also love reading that, speaking aloud to everyone there and realising that I am reading to people I love, on some level. Leafy Suburb Church is maybe a very easy place for that to happen because I do care very much for some of the people there, but it felt bigger than that. In English culture we don't like to use these terms of endearment, of familiarity, or admit that we might love anyone. There's this stiff upper lip to maintain, you know. But within the liturgy it is sort of okay... I like that.

I am wittering. It is time to sleep.

Goodnight, beloved.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Sacrament and Inclusion and Eucharist, oh my!

I have been trying to think of a name for Nearest Church, now that I've decided they're as good a group of people as any with whom to throw in my lot.

I've been thinking a lot in recent months and weeks about the Eucharist.

My understanding of sacrament is that God's blessing is everywhere, and what humans call sacrament is just something that we do to become more aware of it. There isn't anything amazing about bread and wine...or rather, there is, but it isn't more amazing than a beetle or water or every single unthinking breath taken by every human on this planet. The entire world is sacramental.

But I recognise that though I believe God is in everything, I don't always manage to see God in all things. To this end, I practise. I pray because I want to praise God, thank God for the plenty of the world, and indeed to ask that God's blessing be upon those I care for. But I also pray because structured prayer makes my unstructured prayers come more easily. Regular engagement with God through, for example, sung psalmody makes my other work more prayerful. We get better at things if we repeat them. We get better at things if we practise.

And so it is with sacrament. Again, this is just my understanding, just my view through a scratched and cracked lens: the world is holy, but we don't see it as such. We are all entirely dependent on God, but we somehow forget that.

That's nothing new and people forgot it 2000 years ago, too. I struggle mightily with ideas around Incarnation, I am not always certain of Jesus' divinity. In fact, most of the time I'm not convinced.

Despite all my doubts, the message of the Last Supper seems pretty loud and clear to me. In context, bread and wine were the usual fare, but still of religious significance. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-Olam, b'rei p'ri hagafen: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Baruch atah HaShem, Elohenu Melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz: Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

That's about God creating everything that is: ha-Olam is usually translated as the Universe, but it's more literally something like "the all" or "the whole" or "the everything". That's about manna from heaven even as we wander in the wilderness.

At the Last Supper, Christ said "do this in remembrance of me". If I suspend my disbelief and accept, for the sake of argument, that Christ really is God... then why would He say that? Maybe if people had forgotten, despite the words being right there in their mouths, that God made everything and provides all that we have.

That wasn't the really shocking part. The shocking part was the bit about the blood. Drinking blood is a Big Major No-No in Judaism... Leviticus is quite explicit. My understanding is that it was associated with idolatry, and idolatry is Right Out. Drinking and eating humans was perhaps the most shocking thing you could ask a group of faithful Jews to do. "Take, eat: this is my body, broken for you."... bread brought forth from the earth. "This is my blood, shed for you."... the fruit of the vine, created by God.

Can you see where I am going with this? That Last Supper was a very powerful way of saying, "Hey, listen up! God created and God provides!" And the surrounding events, the incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection, show that God loves so much that God provides Godself. If you're a semi-pantheist like me, you might see that already, in apples falling from a tree or in dazzling sunlight or in Bach. And you might cling to that in times of despair, you might try to cultivate that hope in yourself and use it to comfort others.

Far be it from me to second-guess what God is trying to do. I don't have that authority. But I also have to make decisions every moment about what to do next, and I do have to guess what is right, I do have to try to gather information and weigh up the options and then do the next thing in the hope that I either got it right or will be forgiven. And so do you. And in so doing, you interpret... but I digress, as usual.

So I see Communion as this sacrament, this thing people do, to remind themselves that God is God and God is With Us. And I'm not sure whether this is a sacrament ordained by God... but the part of me that sings thinks so. The part of me that reasons thinks that if it is, that doesn't exclude my views of the entire world as sacramental, because God doesn't exclude.

Therein lies one of my difficulties. For, you see, the official position of the Church of England seems to be that this sacrament is only open to those who make a commitment. I know some of you reading this go against that, and welcome everyone to the table, baptised or not, confirmed or not, and I applaud you. But in the large majority of churches and in what I can find of official documentation, the stance is this:

Baptized persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and are in good standing in their own Church shall be admitted to Communion in accordance with Canon B 15A. (from General Notes on Communion, Common Worship)

I'm not going to go dig out Canon B 15A because the above is already legalistic enough. I've blogged about this before. The message sent is "You can have God's grace but only if you believe certain things." Technically by those rules I could go and receive Communion, as I did when I was a child. But the fact that I am included if I fudge things a bit does not make it a less exclusionary message.

I don't believe those things, or I don't think I believe them the way the larger church community would have me believe them, and so I go up for a blessing. I can appreciate that it is also important for people to have some way of identifying that they belong, some rite of passage, some way of making their commitment clear: but I don't think that should be a higher priority than hospitality, welcome, and the reflection in liturgical action of free access to grace! When did our identity as "believers" get more important than our mission to love the world on God's behalf? Lord, have mercy...

I go up for a blessing. I don't hold the belief that such a blessing is any less sacramental than taking Communion would be. There isn't some sort of hierarchy of sacrament here, not from God's point of view, and if the Church would like to imply otherwise I say the Church is wrong. I get... nervous, for lack of a better word. I don't feel dread, as such, but certainly an element of awe. My heart pounds. I often shake a little afterward. I don't identify that reaction as an indication of innate holiness or sacredness, but rather a result of my very human senses being susceptible to the focus on that part of the liturgy. The entire service is built around that moment, and that affects me even if I don't eat the bread and drink the wine. The ground is no more sacred than any other, but the fact that everyone is there to notice it makes all of us notice more easily.

I go up for a blessing. But I'd like to take Communion. I think that experience might, if nothing else, help me to understand Christian belief better than I currently do, on a level which no amount of rational thought will make clear.

I think I'd like to take Communion every week. When I was growing up, it wasn't part of our tradition to have it every week, and my experiences of church at that time were very much tangled together with experiences of upheaval. The treatment I had from my stepdad would be considered mild by many social workers but nonetheless, I was terrified of him. Because of that terror, that fear, I couldn't accept the messages of hope and forgiveness he preached on Sunday mornings. I certainly couldn't be anything other than numb to most of the liturgy. Only some of the music got through. I think if Communion is going to help me, if Communion is going to make me more able to proclaim the Gospel (summary: God Loves All) in deed and in word (more on that in another post!), it has a better chance of doing so if it's regular. I don't know -- for God, anything is possible -- but I suspect that I need the continuity, the consistency. There's a lot of damage to undo, still.

But I can't have that, locally and officially, unless I make a commitment.

I have no problem with making a commitment to love and serve God to the best of my ability. There doesn't seem to be any other sensible way to live! I was acting, at least in part, on that commitment when I left church, when I spent my years exploring Judaism, when I visited with the Unitarians, and indeed in my more recent involvement with Christianity.

I do have a problem with taking communion where it isn't offered freely to all who wish to receive. I recognise that the Church is doing what it thinks best, but I am deeply uneasy that if I were to partake, it would be seen as an endorsement of a policy which I find exclusive and misguided. I don't know if doing that is serving God, no matter how great my need might seem. I also don't know that my need is so very great, if I'm already capable of seeing sacrament elsewhere.

Gentle Vicar, the priest in charge at Nearest Church, is.... well, very kindly. We've spoken in passing a few times, and one of those conversations was indeed about welcome and generosity and grace, among other things. He'll be going on sabbatical in a few weeks and returning just before Lent. Today I made an appointment to go and talk to him before he goes away.

I hope I don't cry. I pray I don't chicken out and talk about something else instead.

I wish he weren't going, because I could really do with some guidance over the next few months, and as warm and welcoming as the community at Nearest Church is, I'm not sure any of them would read this and have any idea what I'm talking about. I'm sure they'd be supportive, but it's kindof vicar territory, really. But I hope he'll be able to tell me more about confirmation/reception/whatever in this diocese. I think that is eventually something I will want to explore further. Certainly some sort of prayerful study with other people is something I'd like to get involved in.

A long time ago, long before I started attending church or praying the Office or blogging here, Ambassador for Compassion suggested that perhaps spiritual direction might be appropriate for me. Advice from AfC is always something I take seriously, since so much of her previous advice for me has been so very, very good, even if I've been unable to recognise it at the time.

I've not mentioned it here previously, but I did get in touch with someone from my diocese about it; that wasn't the right route as most of the diocese is not really in London, so I got in touch with the good folks at SPIDIR who have recommended someone to me. I haven't met her yet. I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea what I want. But I have an appointment to meet her in the not-too-distant future... and I know that she sings. That gives me some hope.

In the meantime, I bought some strawberry plants at a table-top sale at Nearest Church today, and I'll be going along for the sacrament of the Fundraising Quiz Night this evening.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Shareholders in humanity -- ethical banking options?

Yes, I know, I know, it's another response to Nick Baines' blog. This time the post was on finances, and the incongruity of the Tory party defending bankers' big bonuses at the same time as proposing a squeeze on the nation's poorest in order to get supposed benefits scammers back to work.

I wrote in comments there:
It may be that there is some kind of scam but I do not perceive it as widespread; even if that perception is in error I suspect that such scamming may be a symptom of a more systemic problem. I think the bankers who are being allowed such astronomical bonuses are the bigger scammers. They’re also much easier to catch, but for the fact that as a society we have allowed ourselves to place so much value and worth in money that our elected politicians are cowed by the threat of these people throwing their toys out of the pram if someone asks them to behave responsibly toward humanity rather than just shareholders.

Of course if I look at it as a systemic problem with the way we assign value and worth, I’m every bit as culpable as the bankers or any real or imagined benefits scammers. Ouch. And so my question for myself, as always, concerns what I can do to mend that, what I must do to re-align my own values and develop integrity so that my thoughts, words and deeds reflect the innate worth of every human being. I don’t have all the answers to that (sorry Kevin!) but I’ll keep trying to learn.

We are all shareholders in humanity.

How, you might ask, am I culpable?

One of the big ways is that I bank at a high street bank. I don't have much in the way of savings, but millions of others who also don't have much are still enabling the bank to lend out our money... probably not all that ethically. I think we've seen well enough in the last two years how unsustainable some lending policies are.

I don't know if there is ever a good ethical case for charging interest on loans; the usury discussion is something for another time. Meanwhile, I'll be having a good look around this website which is provided by EiRIS, and seeing if I can find a better bank.

I'm also interested in your recommendations, if you're in the UK and have banked with an "ethical" bank or credit union.

Once I have any spare money I'll be looking at things like Kiva, Zopa and MyC4.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

National Poetry Day

This is another post that is mostly Nick Baines' fault.

Eighteen Years On

When I was ten
I carried a notebook --
     thin, yellow
     ruled pages curled by
     jostling books and
     red lunch bag.

In it I wrote poetry. I didn't
about quality, cliché, technique.
I didn't
about what people might think.

I just wrote.

Some of that poetry was good
or so I was told
by teachers, grandparents. I hugged
their praise close,
but that wasn't why I wrote.

Our semi-nomadic family
moved on
the notebook was
     among pens
     school books, permission slips
     math tests
I didn't write much after that.

I never found the book but I knew I wrote, once.
I knew that notebook held hopes, dreams, wishes.

I'm twenty-eight now.
I carry
     a notebook
     tear-out sheets
     the best paper I can afford
In it I write
     shopping lists
     concert plans
     directions, maps
     things to
          look up
          cross out.

My notebook holds the
wordy detritus of a worldy life
and today


Had a hard time earlier this week. Everything's going well -- teaching continues to challenge and stretch me, and my students are a delight. I have some performance deadlines which are enough to motivate me to practise but not enough to terrify me, and things are going well at Nearest Church (which I need to find a better name for, but never mind): I'm getting involved, getting challenged, and also still feeling very welcome. Friendships old and new continue to grow and develop. My life is pretty good.

But I've been having a bit of brainhacking, or counselling as many people would call it. I'm dealing with the same issues that sidelined me in 2005, stuff about parents and trust and growing up. Yes, I had three years of therapy before, three years of going once a week to an appointment I mostly dreaded, spending the first half hour getting to the point where I could talk about things in any meaningful way at all and then the next fifteen minutes sobbing and the next five trying to regain enough composure to get up and walk out of the room. Those three years, and a lot of other help besides, got me to the point where I could venture out from under the duvet and actually do things. They got me to a point of functioning in the world again when I had retreated.

They didn't really deal with the reasons for the retreat. And if I want to remain functional -- if I want to keep doing things in the world without being ambushed at some point by uncontrollable anxiety -- I've got to do some work toward looking at some of those issues, painful as they are, at integrating those experiences into who I am now.

It's easier this time in some senses, because I am mostly functional. I get out of bed every morning. I practise most days. I don't cancel work, calling in sick because I don't have it in me to leave the house. But it's also harder, because doing these things means I have commitments I want to keep and there isn't always space for me to hide under the duvet if I'm frightened.

On Monday I had my appointment and oh, it hurt but oh, there was progress I think. And then I neatly folded my issues away into one corner of my brain and went off to do my teaching. It wasn't an easy evening of teaching, and on my way home while I was sitting on the Tube praying silently to myself those bastard issues unfolded themselves and I went from mostly calm and collected to being in tears. There is nothing quite as classy as crying on public transport, so of course that made me feel worse, and for a few moments I wondered if I was really losing it all again.

Thankfully, Sweetie was home from work a bit early and when I got in Intrepid Anthropologist had nearly made dinner, and between the two of them I had lots of hugs. And people on the lovely lovely internet sent their own hugs, and some choice words which genuinely helped. I was terribly clingy and insecure but Sweetie was very patient (he really is SO kind). And shortly before I dropped off to sleep I had a very strong feeling of being carried, being prayed for. I don't know if it was these words from a friend that did it,
"Behold, he that keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep...
The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, for evermore"

or if there was some other trigger. But I am profoundly grateful, and I have kept coming back to echoes of that feeling over the past few days. It is intensely reassuring.

I'm also wondering how I can ever get things sorted out. I'm aware, you see, that I have a lot of reflection to do. This stuff I'm dealing with in brainhacking overlaps with some of my blogging here in fairly serious ways. There are issues around trust and abandonment and Eucharist and allowing myself to be fed, even if the church appears to be trying to limit access to God's table, and I find myself re-thinking my position on this in some ways which are rather scary to me. There are issues around abuse and intervention and how to respond now to people who once hurt me but no longer have that power, how to honour my parents, how to act in such a way that I have respect for myself without expecting that my actions can mend relationships that are deeply wounded.

Even though I am (moderately) anonymous, I don't know how much of this I can discuss here without maligning people who do not deserve it (and nobody deserves to be maligned). I don't want that to become an excuse for not doing the reflection, but neither do I want to speak ill of anyone. I need to be able to write about my own experiences but I also need to make it clear that these are just my experiences, that I do not have the whole picture and that I know I do not have the whole picture.

That doesn't go into the metrical psalmody from last night, or the stuff that's developing at Nearest Church, or the irony of the first person I went to church with in this country looking for a more inclusive church to attend, or my thoughts about same-gender partnerships and monogamy and my deep frustration that some parts of the church sanction these relationships if and only if they are life-long monogamy of a much higher standard than is expected of heterosexual partnerships. It doesn't touch on the big brown butterfly that flew around all our heads at the Eucharist this past Sunday morning, or the young man now deployed to Afghanistan.

I don't have time to blog it all.

Further updates as events warrant, I guess.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Green Grow'th the Holly

Green grow'th the holly,
So doth the ivy;
Though winter blasts blow ne'er so high,
Green grow'th the holly.

Gay are the flowers,
Hedgerows and ploughlands;
The days grow longer in the sun,
Soft fall the showers.

Full gold the harvest,
Grain for thy labour;
With God must work for daily bread
Else, man, thou starvest.

Fast fall the shed leaves,
Russet and yellow;
But resting buds are snug and safe
Where swung the dead leaves.

Green grow'th the holly,
So doth the ivy;
The God of life can never die,
Hope! saith the holly.

The words are attributed to Henry VIII. I don't know how true that is, I mean, would you argue if he said "We wrote that, We did," when actually you'd written the words?

I'm singing this with Petite Violinist and Shiny Soprano. I couldn't find it on YouTube etc, so I guess we'll have to record it sometime. I wanted to post it here because it illustrates so beautifully the way I see the world. I was going to write "the natural world" but that implies that any of it isn't natural, that the things humans make aren't included.

The God of life can never die.

Do I need to believe more than that?

Right now, I don't think so.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


Term has started so I've been busier than during the summer.

I'm settling into the house alright. The excess furniture has been moved around enough that we can live with it. Sharing my home with Sweetie and with Intrepid Anthropologist is a joy. We have our wobbles, and our disagreements, and so far we have managed to negotiate them with warmth, respect and generosity.

My finances are very poor at present. The plan is to get some teaching work locally, which will eventually enable me to abandon my time-hungry commute to the Wilds of North London where I currently teach two evenings per week; once that happens I can get even more teaching locally. At the rates I charge it should be possible to live on relatively few hours of "work" in terms of contact time, but building up a class of students is likely to take a few years. Everything is word-of-mouth in this business.

In the meantime I am trying to keep my spending low. That's hard when my biggest expense is rent and my current income doesn't cover it! I am very thankful that Sweetie is supportive and generous; he has been making up the gaps. That isn't always comfortable but it is a better alternative than trying to do office work (which would destroy my mental health in about two months), assuming I could even get such a job in the current economic climate.

Something I have thought about before and want to explore again in more depth is the idea of creating a sort of artificial stipendiary situation. I would like to live with more security and a higher standard of living than I did as a student, but I'm well aware of lifestyle creep, the ease with which one can spend more and more and more and then end up needing a higher and higher salary to support that spending. I don't want to be on that treadmill. I know I tend to be a bit of a spendthrift, impulsive about buying things for myself or others if I have the money to hand, and so it seems that perhaps the best way to do this would be to limit the portion of my income that I can access easily. The rest could be donated to charity, or perhaps held in an interest-bearing account and the interest donated (I have ethical concerns about usury and need to research this more), or simply spent on others when I see they are in need.

There are some obvious benefits of attempting to live this way, of un-hitching my spending from my work. One would be that as long as I was earning enough to cover my stipend I could do my work without having to worry about whether it would be efficient financially. I could participate in voluntary collaborative projects more freely, without worrying about whether it would impact my paid teaching work. I could take on students who otherwise could not have lessons. I could choose one-off projects based on whether I like them, rather than constantly needing to assess whether they pay enough.

Another major benefit of this type of working pattern would be a certain amount of financial simplicity. I don't mean just the fact that I wouldn't have a lot of spending money and so wouldn't be able to buy too many shiny things... though that is definitely a factor. But as a freelance musician, my actual earned income is always going to be scattered, hit-and-miss. If you've always had a regular salary (at least while you've had regular outgoings) you might not realise how difficult this can be: I can't predict from one month to the next how much money I will have. This is not comfortable. I think it does contribute somewhat to my tendency to spendthriftiness, actually: if there is something I need or want and I do have the cash to get it, I tend to purchase right away because I know I may not have the funds later. Knowing how much I have to spend, even if it's only a little, seems pretty attractive. Even if I were not inclined to give away my spare money, I would need to do some sort of income-leveling exercise anyway.

But I think the real benefit to imposing a structure like this will be that when I find that someone else really needs money I won't be thinking "darn, I could have done without that book I bought last week if I'd known so-and-so didn't have the money for such-and-such" but should be able to be more generous. Maybe that would also be achievable by much more mindful spending on my part, and of course there will still be conflicts (easy example: Person A needs some educational material and Person B needs shoes that fit but I've already spent it all on train tickets for Person C to go visit an ill family member), but the hard thinking about what I actually need vs what I want, and how to balance that against the needs of others, will already have been done.

For now this is all pie in the sky, and it will remain so until I am earning more sustainable amounts on a regular basis. In the meantime I am trying to keep spending low and also to keep track of what I do spend so that I have some sort of guideline as to what is reasonable. I'm also thinking about the logistics, about how much I sensibly need to save before I can just give the rest away, about how much I might try to donate even now. I'm thinking about whether it would make more sense to allocate funds as I usually spend them -- impulsively, based on what comes to my attention -- or whether it would be better to make a commitment to a cause over the long term (something like short-term, interest-free loans for local families having trouble). Perhaps a little of both is the obvious answer there.

If you could choose your own stipend, how would you do it? How would it change your working life if you could be paid enough to live on (but not much more) and be told "Now go do whatever work you think needs doing"? Do you think you'd work more, or less? How would you decide what "enough to live on" actually is? Does this strategy sound at all manageable on an individual level, or does it require big bureaucratic structures? (Remember that I'd have to do most of the paperwork myself anyway!)

If you are already on a stipend, what is the best thing about it? What is the worst? Am I completely bonkers? Oh wait, we all know the answer to that last one.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hymnody, Psalmody, and knowing your audience

The ordination service yesterday morning at Southwark Cathedral had a few elements that have stuck in my mind.

One was a sung metrical setting of the Nicene Creed. Of course this made me happy; I can sing creeds, and believe them, because of the augmentation of the possible that seems to get through my thick skull when I sing or chant instead of speaking. I struggled with the lack of music dots in front of me but the tune used was easy to pick up, and I was very glad to be able to sing it.

The other was the choice of recessional hymn. It was Siya Hamba, with the Zulu words first, followed by several verses of English. I learned that song in the 1990s and know it quite well, but I didn't think it was a good choice for the occasion. The message of the song is appropriate enough, but there are other things to consider. The congregation contained a higher-than-usual number of people who probably don't spend a lot of time in church, and definitely a lot of people who probably do not know that song or be comfortable singing along with syncopated rhythms in a foreign language (there may well have been some Zulu speakers in the audience but I suspect not very many). It's difficult to recess in a seemly and dignified manner to a song that really feels more like you should be dancing. It isn't the easiest song to accompany on the pipe organ - the organist did a very good job, but it isn't exactly idiomatic writing for that instrument. On the other hand, the repetition of the words meant that anyone who has learned the song probably does remember it reasonably easily.

I like a lot of West Gallery music. This is mostly metrical psalmody -- that is, psalmody translated such that it has rhyme and meter. Thus a typical doxology, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost" etc might be sung as follows in 8686 meter:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom we adore,
Be glory; as it was, is now
And shall be evermore.

or like this in 8888:

To Father, Son and Holy Ghost
The God whom earth and heav'n adore,
Be glory; as it was of old,
Is now, and shall be evermore.

There are various different translations flying around the internet. I linked to one in this post in May but it seems to be broken now, but the wikipedia article has external links to a number of metrical psalters.

West Gallery music is wonderful; it was written by amateurs for amateurs, performed by real people who had other work to do, not just professionals. The theology is generally good (hard to go wrong with psalmody) and it reflects folk music traditions of the time.

This has got me thinking... hymnody these days is not always in a wonderful state. Nick Baines has blogged about this in some depth. We can't just freeze hymnody in time and only use what has been written before: that way lies irrelevance. Nor must we embrace everything new just because it is new: some of it will be theologically or musically inappropriate.

As I see it there are two main problems with some of the modern hymnody being written; the words and the music. That sounds like a sweeping condemnation of everything new, and it isn't meant to be! However, much of what is new includes bad poetry or sloppy theology, and just because words are written with Christian intent does not mean they should be sung. Similarly, just because some piece of music is written with worship in mind or appeals to a particular group or is appropriate for one setting does not mean it is appropriate for congregational hymnody. I feel choosing music that people can participate in and relate to is an important part of good liturgy.

I think in the current cultural environment, finding a common denominator for musical language is going to be a big challenge. We aren't anywhere near as limited by geography in our exposure to various traditions, and the last half-century has seen a shift away from music as a participatory activity to one of passive consumption. This means that your average congregation might include traditionally-trained classical musicians like myself with little exposure outside of their specialist genre (and very eclectic exposure within it), people who listen to or perform pop music of a particular time period or genre, people who listen to or perform "alternative" music from a number of distinctive genres, and people who are experts in a variety of folk traditions. The variety is huge! The music participation people may have encountered in school or elsewhere is also more varied than I understand it was ten or fifteen years ago in this country. None of those are in and of themselves negative things, but they mean that finding music the whole congregation can participate in is quite a challenge. The resources available for professionals or amateurs to lead the musical portions of worship are also highly variable. And there are going to be issues around disability and inclusion, and also literacy.

I don't think all these issues can be addressed by any one hymn or hymn-writer or hymnal: support for some of these issues is better handled at a local level by people who can sensitively and skilfully assess the situation and come up with creative solutions. But I do think it's important to keep them in mind.

To this end, I would consider the following when writing music for communal worship:

My understanding is that most congregations do not wish to rehearse their hymnody before services. They may be led by a choir of singers (of varying skill) or by instruments, but hymnody ideally also needs to be suitable for occasional offices when the choir may not be available. Most congregants aren't going to hear these hymns more often than during church services, so the melodies need to be memorable. Many congregants don't sing in daily life and so the melodies need to be singable by people who perhaps lack confidence in their singing.

A sort of via negativa list of things that make hymnody difficult for me:
-very disjunct melodies with large or awkward leaps
-too much syncopation, especially in situations where others are obviously not familiar with it and the accompaniment (if any) does not have a strong beat
-hymn tunes that are so long that I cannot remember them unless I have music dots to look at -- I'm okay if I can hear it once or twice through before we start singing, but most of the time you only get a line and I'm not so good at remembering and following at the same time.
-languages I don't understand, especially if they start the hymn or it's difficult to hear how others are executing vowels and consonants
-melodies set too high or two low for a comfortable singing range

This means an ideal hymn tune, among other things, will have a repetitive melody with reasonably predictable notes and rhythms. That in turn lends itself to metrical text.

I think I probably need to stick to tried-and-true texts, at least at first. I'm not a poet and I'm certainly not a trained theologian, and I would veer too easily into cringe-worthy words or dodgy theology if I attempted to write my own words without a lot of guidance from people more knowledgeable than I am. For me the obvious place to start is with psalmody -- it has been around for a few thousand years, after all. But the traditional metrical psalters are not suitable for a modern congregation: the language is seen as archaic by some and will simply be strange to those who don't speak English as their first language. I need to stick to modern translations. I'm not a translator, so I need to use others' work here.

Thankfully Dale A Schoening, a United Methodist minister in Iowa, has published a bunch of these and also some metrical canticles with an alternative copyright arrangement. I haven't read them yet to check for awkward language or syllabic stress, and there are several missing, but it's a good start. He's also stated the meter used for each and even suggested some tunes.

I need to develop some of this further, I think, but I'm quite tired now and need to stop here.

Back to Church Sunday

Yesterday the C of E had "Back to Church Sunday" in many churches.

It's rather fitting that I spent it celebrating the ordination and first Eucharist of someone who has had a profound influence on my own return to church and indeed to Christianity. When I met this woman for the first time, I was still hurting too much from my own experiences to see what Christianity can be, but her actions as long as I've known her have painted a very challenging and compelling picture of what is possible.

I still don't know whether I'd call myself Christian, but I've been told a number of times now that my beliefs are more Christian than not. Would that my actions could also match this description, or at least the best spirit of it!

The services were beautiful, not in a "that's really pretty" sort of way (though there was plenty of aesthetic beauty about) but spiritually moving. It was wonderful to attend the ordination in the morning as a member of the congregation, and an honour and a joy to sing in the choir for the Eucharist in the evening.

So, yes. Deacon Friend is now also a priest. Since I've started associating with so many clergy online, Priest Friend really won't narrow things down, so I shall from now on refer to her here as Ambassador for Compassion.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Church Search: enough already.

I went to choir practice at Nearest Church on Friday. It was a very modest affair, but all day Saturday I found myself looking forward to one of the pieces, and thinking "Can I really be bothered to go to Church-by-the-Station tomorrow as planned?" and in the end I decided that if I felt that strongly about it I may as well go to Nearest Church.

So I did that. I sang in the choir, and it wasn't spectacular but it was meaningful. I finally heard the vicar preach and I liked what he had to say even if some of how he said it was awkward.

Afterward there was a congregational meeting. I went along to observe.

I liked what I saw. The generosity and openness of Networking Organist appear to be endemic in this group of people.

The meeting was basically a look at some of the activities of the last few years and a bit of a brainstorming session about how people could contribute to further development of their "mission" and what they need in order to do so. It will be interesting to see what the follow-through from the meeting is like in terms of practical projects, but the work they've done in the last three years is significant. They seem to have a strong commitment to ensuring that the church really does serve the whole community in a welcoming and non-judgmental way, no strings attached, and from what I can tell are fairly successful in doing so. The idea that we should care for others regardless of their beliefs or background is one I value and I'm glad to have found a group of people who appear to share that value. I was also very impressed with the way the vicar and others handled things when one or two people seemed to be derailing the conversation toward a sort of blame game; I tend to have something of l'esprit d'escalier in such situations.

I'm not giving up on some involvement at Church-by-the-Station: I think there is work there that needs to be done and I may be the right person to do some of it. But I think Nearest Church is a community better aligned with my own values, and I find myself wanting to nourish and expand on what is already happening there.

Afterward, washing up teacups, I had a conversation which... which I can't talk about here, again. But I was told things in confidence which I had not expected, I was trusted by someone who doesn't know me well, because of the things I had said, the information I had volunteered first. It was affirming and challenging at once. I had not realised my words would make a difference in that way.

An awful lot else has been going on, too.

One week from today, Deacon Friend will become Priest Friend. Since I seem to know a fair few clergy these days, that label won't really narrow it down; I'll have to find another name for her on this blog. I went down to Leafy Suburb Church to sing in their Evensong service today; this made for rather a lot of singing in one day but was well worth it. I'll be there singing again next week for her first Eucharist (yes, the same day she is ordained a priest... something to do with conference dates I think). But if you'd spare a prayer for her and her loved ones, and for the other ordinands, I'd appreciate it. While you're at it a kind word for the vicar there (who has not been well) and her husband (who was injured in a fall a few days ago) wouldn't go amiss!

My stepmum isn't entirely well; one of those minor illnesses that in the old and unhealthy becomes more serious has left her with acute asthma.

Soon one of my compositions will be performed in public for the first time. I am hoping it will be well-received. Can't say more than that without breaking anonymity.

This time last year you would not have convinced me that I would be attending Christian services weekly (sometimes more), or looking for a church to call 'home', or getting to the point where not saying the Creed is starting to feel sillier than saying it would feel wrong...

I feel like everything is shifting, like I can't quite get a handhold. I'm not sure whether I'm falling or flying. I'm not sure whether it matters.

Sweetie is home and I am going to bed.

Oh, that.

I realised something today.

My experiences with my stepdad, who was a minister, were not happy ones. He was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive toward me. I don't like to talk about the specifics much and I struggle with saying anything about it here as it's a complex issue and I don't want to make him out to be a monster. He's not a monster. He's a human being. Which is scary and hard and difficult, but it's true.

Because my stepdad was a minister an awful lot of my experience of church was filtered through him. I've known for some time that this was one of the reasons I did not get on well with Christianity and with church. I didn't exactly have a positive role model.

I was thinking today about organ playing, which it looks like I'll be learning to do much better, and about my mum's organ playing. And I realised that my mother, working as an organist at the church where I was baptised, was sexually abused by a member of clergy there. I don't remember when I found out about this, but I must have been quite young as I don't remember not knowing. I remember knowing it was wrong and shouldn't have happened, but I don't remember not knowing it had happened.

No wonder I tend to automatically be fearful of male clergy.

I've since encountered some wonderful female clergy, and in getting to know local churches I have been sometimes nervous about the fact that they are mostly led by male clergy but on meeting the clergy concerned I have not felt threatened or frightened.

It will be interesting to observe how this develops.

I've had a long day and lots of other significant stuff has happened and I feel kindof shell-shocked.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

It's never quite simple, is it?

Went to Nearest Church again today.

The vicar was away and there were no smells but still bells. I'd never seen Communion by Extension before so it was interesting from that point of view. The sermon was given by the reader again -- I still haven't heard the vicar preach. But it was, while academic and erudite, a message of inclusion and hope.

I had a long chat with Networking Organist. Again. He does rather like to talk.

I can't go into a whole lot of detail here without destroying anonymity. But the situation at Nearest Church is not straightforward, and neither is the situation at Church-by-the-Station. Both are going through changes and transitions right now and nothing is stable.

Networking Organist has been generous and supportive, and has made clear on a number of occasions that I am welcome to make use of the resources at Nearest Church for my own education regardless of whether I end up in regular worship there. He also understands that I will get involved in the music wherever I end up and that it is important to me that I do not simply end up doing that as another part of my professional portfolio. He said, and I quote, "Any church you attend will find a way to use your musical skills, but I think you need to find your voice and develop your own role." I'm floored.

We spoke of the ways that might happen, and some of the obstacles to it at Nearest Church and elsewhere, and he reminded me again that I don't have to make any hasty decisions.

The path that seemed open last week, that of being involved musically at both churches, is looking clearer now. There is work for me to do at both. It remains to be seen whether Church-by-the-Station will be supportive.

Loving the world II: Your Money or Your Life?

Back on Nick Baines' blog one of the things that gets discussed in comments is how to act to improve the world. There's no real end to that discussion, the world is complex and we all have much to learn.

One of the things that always springs to my mind is that, locally or globally, money talks. Donating money to worthy charities is one way to channel resources to where they are most needed; another is to try to be aware of our spending. The latter is fraught with difficulty; the complexity of international markets is such that I can't always tell, for example, the working conditions of the people who made the food I'm eating or the clothes I'm wearing. I consider it my responsibility to try to be aware of this where possible; it's a lot easier now than it used to be, with "Fairly Traded" labelling and the ability to research labour policies of various companies online, but keeping track of the information for every purchase I make is still impossible. At some point I just have to accept that the money I spend is not always going to go toward improving the world and may actually cause harm.

But there's a falseness to a model in which I track my financial outgoings but not my words or actions, which may have nothing to do with money. If I donate money to worthy charities and only buy the most scrupulously ethically sourced goods, but earn my living by exploiting others, what is the good of my ethical spending habits? If I earn a pittance and spend very little, so doing only a very small amount of damage with my financial power, but I speak and act with hatred, fear and loathing for all I meet, what good is my restraint?

On the flip side of that, it takes more than money and physical goods to make a positive difference in the world. Our family had some difficult times growing up but I was never seriously at any risk of being homeless and any time I went to bed hungry it was a punishment, not a result of not having enough food. I have never had to seriously wonder where my next meal will come from! And yet until a few years ago I was painfully unhappy. I don't think the positive difference people made in my life is negated because it didn't cost them much money, or any money in some cases. I am deeply grateful that some people realised that throwing money at my negative situation was not going to change it, and instead did things that were actually helpful.

This is an issue I encounter in my own experiences teaching music. I have often said I'd be happy to teach for free, on the grounds that much of what I teach -- I hope -- has no easily quantifiable value. I charge money for my work not because I think that is the value of the work I do, but because I cannot live on air. This is especially challenging when I am faced (as I currently am) with the prospect of potentially promising students who cannot afford my fee, but when I am not yet earning enough to pay my own rent... but I digress. There is another side to it, which is that the majority of my customers (usually parents of my students) think of my services as something they pay a certain amount for. They pay their money and get back, hopefully, a certain outcome. While I cannot guarantee an outcome I am expected to put in a certain amount of work and effort because I am being paid. People are liable to get quite uppity if they pay me and do not think they are getting the agreed-upon results. I find that sometimes, paying students take the commitment of lessons far more seriously than those with whom I've worked out some sort of barter or exchange. Sometimes, people erroneously think that because something costs a certain amount of money, it is actually worth that amount of money. A price tag gives them an illusion of control.

A topic that has led to some discussion of payment for services rendered is that of touch. We live in a world where touch is oft considered sexual and threatening, where a teacher comforting a crying child with a hug could be prosecuted, where it is not normal for many families and friends to touch one another in the course of daily life. I'm not in a position to judge whether this is healthy: I don't think non-consensual touch is a good alternative to the paranoia around touch that we have now. But I would posit that some touch is necessary for most people, that growing up learning to be afraid of touch and associate it only with sex probably leads to unhealthy and unhelpful attitudes in romantic and platonic relationships. It seems that if we do need touch for a sense of connection with others or a sense of being loved, but it is made inaccessible by cultural or personal hang-ups, we might seek some other way of meeting those needs. In light of this, an interesting phenomenon is that of "pampering" services such as massage, facials, and other treatments designed to be relaxing. It seems to me that a lot of these involve touch. Certainly my favourite thing about going to a hairdresser has always been that most wonderful sensation of having someone else wash my hair, which does leave me feeling cared for in a very basic way. Yet that is still not the same as a cuddle with Sweetie, or a hug from a friend. I don't go to a hairdresser regularly, but if I did and we met on the street on a day when I was feeling rotten, I very much doubt we'd hug -- but if I run into some of my friends a hug is very normal. The professional nature of certain relationships constrains touch to strictly defined areas. Touch we pay for is safe, and usually one-sided. We take control of the situation by quantifying it.

Now, I don't advocate that hairdressers, massage therapists et cetera should do their work for free, unless they so choose. It's entirely possible that just as I love teaching in and of itself and care very much for each of my students and express that through the way I teach, someone else might find deep joy and calm in aspects of physical care; neither of us can live on air and I suspect there will always be some demand for such services. I don't necessarily think it is wrong to attempt to meet our needs for touch through paid services, either: better that than through violent, coercive or destructive relationships. But I need a lot of hugs to keep myself ticking over, and I need to give a lot of love, too. Touch interactions where financial remuneration is expected do not seem to have the mutuality or reciprocity that I find very rewarding. I think the tendency to reduce all our interactions to financial transactions is ultimately a giant red herring. The things I prize most are given freely.

Money can be exchanged for goods and services in a lawful market, but that market is not all-encompassing. Love is not marketable. Nobody can pay me so much money that I love them; nobody can pay me to stop loving them.

But just as neglecting the local in favour of international concerns or vice versa is not a sustainable way forward, neglecting the material needs of the world is a cop-out. It may be that more than just financial commitment is necessary, but no amount of warm fuzzy well-wishing can address real poverty. It just isn't enough just to think kind thoughts about the poor or the weak or the sick: we must provide food, shelter, medicine. That costs money.