Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Organ donation

Remember this post? Yeah. Well. Roseann isn't doing well, folks.

Please remember her in your prayers.

If you're not already on the organ donor register in the country where you live, please seriously consider why not. Please consider changing that. You could save a life.

Here's how to get started in the UK.

Here's how to get started in the US.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

peace that passeth understanding

The weekend went by fast. Monday tomorrow already? Oh dear...

Tonight at Evensong I was playing and singing, with a choir I play and sing with regularly. It was at a church I've never been to, a lovely chapel attached to an art college of some sort.

I really, really like some of the settings we performed. Or prayed. Much the same thing from my perspective.

Talking afterward with some other choir members, someone asked about the reader who had taken the service, and this sparked off a conversation about ordination and various people we know who have taken various holy orders. M who I was talking with was adamant that she had no aspirations in that direction. Not much later she was explaining one interpretation of the Trinity to me, in a fairly sensible and matter-of-fact way, and the funny thing is that it did make a sort of sense. And the touch on the shoulder while she spoke said, "It's okay to be where you are," as much as her spoken words took me beyond where I was. The whole thing took perhaps thirty seconds, we were packing up to go home in a roomful of busy people also packing up to go home, nothing like as intimate as it felt. But it seems significant, enough so that I'm writing about it here rather than going to bed. I felt like, still feel like, another piece of a puzzle has been put into place.

I don't feel I can repeat the explanation, which makes me a bit uncomfortable: I like being able to explain things on intellectual levels. I'm not wonderful with words but I generally throw great quantities of them at a concept until I'm satisfied, and yet there are no words for this and to be honest I barely remember what M was saying.

If I hadn't had the same feeling a thousand times while singing I'd be quite terrified right now.

I don't doubt that I'll continue to struggle with Trinitarian doctrine. I've felt less stressed about it recently than I used to, but it still niggles. But right now it niggles in a slightly different way.

I have no idea if any of this makes sense to anyone other than me.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Search by Melody

I am very grateful for this post which points at this resource - a tool where you can search for chants by melody. Okay, you need to have good enough relative pitch to be able to notate the melody; it's not at the point where you can just sing into a microphone and have the computer work things out. But it's a big step on from anything I've seen yet, and it does handle transposition, so relative-but-not-perfect-pitch thinkers like me don't have to remember the name of the starting pitch, just the relationship between the notes...

Remember this post where I was wondering about hospital chaplaincy and being able to find hymns that people could only remember bits of? That's a much bigger project: there are metrical considerations, and copyright considerations, and a constantly-expanding repertoire. But this is a start.

Pretty shiny, eh?

and breathe

Got the assignment in, but a day late, for which I will lose 10%. It's not as if I really think the numbers have much to do with the learning any more, but I'd like to jump through the assorted hoops as well as I can and get the bit of paper at the end that says I am a competent musician. And for this, I have to do paperwork. 44 pages of it today.

Might post something sensible tomorrow but for this evening I am going to have dinner with Sweetie and look at cat pictures on teh internets, and chase up a few threads of new and shiny things to learn...

Monday, 20 April 2009

Placeholder post

Too many things to think about, let alone to post about! My brain, at the moment, is all about big ideas, general concepts, broad careless strokes of a chunky brush dipped in searingly bright colours. It's in my practising, my teaching, even composing (such as it is) is coming at me in big forms and harmonic structure rather than melodic line and fine nuance.

Typical, then, that this week in my academic work I need to write a report on Big Project, a meticulously detailed report of what I learned and how I learned it, complete with appendices, tables and charts. As someone who normally does that sort of learning in a more organic and intuitive way, I'm struggling a little to identify these things, but as a teacher and a musician I can do self-scrutiny well enough; as someone who thinks the structure of the assignment is not actually that helpful to the learning process I'm resentful of having to jump through the hoop. But the biggest problem is really that I keep getting distracted by big ideas.

The way I usually work through ideas is to talk about them or write about them.

Things I would like to write about, right here and right now, but for which I really haven't got the spare brain cycles:

-How my spirituality/beliefs relate to teaching music; how I can be more generally supportive of the families I work with, through music teaching and not in any overtly religious framework; how to pray about teaching
-I've touched on it a bit before, but more on music performance and spirituality and my current understanding of the relationship between the two
-Chronic pain and how I deal with that and various other physical and mental health difficulties. I'm not actually sure I can do this without turning it into a whinge-fest or completely destroying the fragile anonymity I'm trying to maintain here.
-Words and meaning; images and meaning; sounds and meaning. In the beginning there was the Word, we're told--but do we mean the word, or do we mean meaning itself? And how does this relate to our being made in God's image, and being creators of meaning ourselves?
-Psalmody and how/why it seems to work so much better for me when chanted or sung; the line between speaking and chanting, and between chanting and singing. I'd quite like to do lots of research into chanted/sung psalmody in the Jewish tradition and how that relates to the worship patterns of the early Church. And I'd like to get to know it all so much better, and find or help create an authentic, aesthetic and accessible sung/chanted Psalmody for English translations. Yes, lots of work is being done on this already; I'm essentially playing catch-up, in an academic sense. Meanwhile I keep singing them in Morning Prayer, and one day indeed pours out its song to another as in Psalm 19 this morning.
-Material poverty (of others) and asceticism (the temptation to it in myself, and a certain pointlessness). I really haven't ironed out my thoughts on this.
-FaceBook, Twitter, blogging, other ways of keeping in touch and building communities online and how I see (and how I use) these various tools.
-Food and prayer and (especially shared) meals, and an assortment of thoughts I've been having on these recently; Eucharist and sacrament within and without standard liturgy; this also relates to creating a welcoming home, and to being spiritual/religious in a pluralist/secular society, creating rituals that can be shared and meaningful without excluding anyone or making them feel uncomfortable.

The assignment will have to come first, I'm afraid. And I've got a busy week in other terms as well, so need to be careful not to commit to too much yet. But I might be able to write about one of these by Saturday-ish. Which would you like to read?

Saturday, 18 April 2009


My hospital appointment on Thursday had mixed results. The short version is that I need to see the vampires at least twice more before they're even willing to make a decision as to how to proceed. I'm glad that the specialist is being thorough rather than dismissive, but I do grow weary of so many appointments.

Today I have mostly been doing housekeeping. I tidied my room some; there's a way to go, but the once-only-a-rumour floor has been sighted, and I have some clean laundry hanging up to dry for the week ahead. My internet access at home has not been working today so I've now retreated to the pub to sit in the sunshine, eat delightfully unhealthy food and use the wifi.

Some online housekeeping, then:

I do have a Twitter account. My username there is, predictably, song_in_heart. I am trying to maintain some semblance of anonymity so I'm afraid it's not public; if you want to follow me I'll have to approve you. If you've commented at all regularly here I'm almost certain to do so, if I can figure out who you are.

One of the things that ends up on my Twitter posts is haiku. This started as a joke among friends sometime last spring or summer and I've mostly kept at it, at a rate of two or three per week (more in summer, fewer in winter). They aren't necessarily very good but I like writing them, I like having to focus on what is in front of me and make it fit the syllables. In case some of you would like to read those without the rest of the chaff that ends up on Twitter, I've decided to start sticking them on a blog, Wandering Haiku. I'll probably update it once a week or so.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

On Evangelism

Various people say that Christianity is on the verge of extinction in Europe. Hat tip to TitusOneNine for the link.

I'm a bit bemused by the amount of "Oh noes, Christianity is on the way out!" alarmism that I see, especially in England. When I was observing Judaism it certainly didn't feel like that. If you think it is difficult to practise Christianity in this country, try a faith with much more ritual: it gets hard quite quickly. Try a faith with a different calendar and you'll be left in no doubt as to whether the customs of this country stem from Christian traditions.

I do think that one thing that is happening is that people are no longer defaulting to being church-going Christians. A lot of people are disillusioned with the Church for one reason or another. They're exploring other faiths. They've realised they don't need to go to church for social or community reasons, so they don't. If not having a large portion of the population going to church just because that's what you do, isn't it? means a decline in Christianity, then I suppose that's true enough--but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, and I don't know for sure that it's actually a decline in Christiantiy as I might define it. Are a bunch of people mumbling through the Apostles' Creed without thinking about what they're saying actually Christian? I suppose, yet again, it depends who you ask.

Much is being made of change in worship format, much is being made of deliberate evangelism. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I think we need to be careful.

Changing worship formats too much can alienate those people who have stuck with church even though it seems less relevant; it can turn away those who need the consistency and familiarity of tradition. I think it's important to be sensitive to that. I know it's partly a result of my musical training, I know I'm a bit of sad geek in some ways, but I'm 28 years old and I'm far more likely to want to go to a traditional choral Evensong than to any 'rave in the nave', especially if the latter has been arranged by people who clearly have no idea what is actually relevant to "young folks" today.

Direct evangelism simply makes me squirm, in most cases. Someone telling me I'm not saved is not going to get me to go to church, folks. Someone telling me that Christianity is the only true path to God is not going to get me to go to church and it is not going to get me to believe that God is loving. Someone telling me about resurrection and eternal life when I'm not ready to hear it is going to make me run screaming away. It's not that simple, and trying to present it as such is unlikely to be effective to a generation that is asking questions. Combine that with contrived, happy-clappy worship patterns that haven't stood the test of time, and the unfortunate tendency of evangelical activity to lead to a sort of sickly-sweet cliqueyness, and as far as I'm concerned you're creating obstacles.

What has got me going to church again, and interested in Christianity again after about a decade, has been the lovingkindness with which I have seen some people act. Being on the receiving end of unconditional acceptance, care, and yes, love, is a very powerful experience. Having an open invitation without expectation is a very powerful experience. The idea that I might pass on some of what I have received, the idea that I might be part of bringing about heaven on earth, is extremely compelling. Nobody has forced me to go to church, nobody has forced me to use Christian prayer structures, certainly nobody has forced me to think about Christian theology, and yet for me to turn around and start going another direction now would require active effort on my part.

The Church as an institution has less political power than it once did, less social power than it once did. I don't propose that this should change: I think it will just have to get used to not having the privileges that are often assigned to the default majority. But I don't think it will be extinct, I don't think it will be extinguished--not while there are people within the Church who are committed to working for the good of all humanity, people who consistently take responsibility for showing the whole world the abundant love of God.

I think evangelism that seeks to convert or save people rather than to love and serve them is rather misplaced.

A little something.

So I've been saying/singing an order for Compline most nights, and there's a verse before and after the Nunc Dimittis:

Save us, O Lord, while waking,
and guard us while sleeping,
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep may rest in peace.

And what my brain has done with that is this:

From Randomness

I have no idea whether I'm fitting the words to an existing campfire round or whether I made this one up. I thought, "those words would make a good round" and then it was just sort of there, and it has stayed for a while. But it really does want to be sung as a round, and I can only do that in my head.

Please feel free to use it, or not. And please tell me if I've nicked someone else's tune!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

of appointments and Appointments

I have a hospital appointment tomorrow. This is for a relatively minor chronic condition for which my GP cannot prescribe me appropriate medication (what she is allowed to prescribe makes me depressed, and I'm not willing to put up with that side effect). I've waited some months for the appointment, by the time I've been referred to one place and another. I really hope they can help, otherwise it's more referrals and more waiting.

I've been having career-related thoughts today. My plan for some time has been to keep teaching music, and also do some arranging and composing, some education and outreach projects with friends, get involved in the local community. Eventually I want to do a Master's, though the list of possible subjects is so long I daren't look at it. It has also been my plan to eventually get to the point where my private teaching is all done from my home, and none of it on conventional weekends; this will take a while as right now about half my income is generated from the work I do on Sundays.

I learned that the music director at Leafy Suburb Church is going to be leaving. A small part of my brain filed that information away on Sunday and then presented it to me today as the daft notion that I should apply for the position.

There are many very good reasons why I am not going to do that; I'm not going to list them here. The main thing is that the timing and location are all wrong.

But... I do have most of the basic skills I would need. Okay, I'm not an organist, but I could learn it: the trick is to remember that it isn't a piano. My choral conducting skills are rusty at best but they'd improve fast with regular use, as I found out when I was doing some conducting every week for Big Project. Moving every two or three years as a child and singing in as many choirs as I could until university (when I had to cut back to one) means I'm familiar with most choral problems, if not the solutions to all of them. I don't know much about C of E liturgy and I'm unfamiliar with much of the standard repertoire in this country but that's nothing that can't be solved, in fact nothing I wasn't planning on learning more about anyway. There are issues around making things accessible to a younger generation without alienating those with more traditional tastes but I'm going to encounter those in all areas of music teaching and performance.

Most of my life I've wanted to teach and write music; to my great joy, that's what I've ended up doing. Most of my life I've been aware on some level that music is an important or even essential part of worship, for me, and singing especially so. Why it has never occurred to me (despite, looking back over the last year or so, a few suggestions from various directions) to take seriously the possibility of combining these two, I'm not sure. Pursued carefully it fits around my existing career plans rather well. And maybe nothing will come of this, but it's an interesting nudge and one that I'm not going to ignore.

I'm not going to do much about it immediately, either. Right now I need to get through the last bits of my degree. Then I need to move house and spend some time building up a class of students in the new area, and adjust to being an impoverished music teacher rather than an impoverished student.

For now, about the only thing that changes is this: when I'm looking for a church to attend in the area I'll be moving to this summer, I won't necessarily discount or reject communities that don't have a strong, vibrant music program. I can always help to build one after I get there.

Song's Thought for the Day

Now, look here.

Men are human. Women are human. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, asexuals, bisexuals are human. Transgender people are human. Right-wing lunatics are human, left-wing paranoid conspiracy theorists are human.

Each and every human, no matter how difficult to deal with, no matter how much we are frightened of their power, is a child of God. And no matter what measures we put in place to try to tell ourselves that the other children of God don't matter, we are wrong, and God will have the final word.

So what are we to do? Deal with it. Get over ourselves a bit. Accept, understand, embrace our differences. And work to make God's will--that's love and salvation, folks--as evident on earth as it is in heaven.

I don't have all the answers on how to do that. Neither does anyone else. But we won't figure it out if we keep turning people away out of fear.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Help? and Five Miscellaneous Items

Can you help me do my coursework?

I want to get my hands on as many different translations (into English) of the Psalms as I can. I'm setting one of them for some of my academic work, and I want to find just the right words. I don't know enough Hebrew to be able to work directly from the original text so I'm thinking if I look at lots of different translations I can either choose one if it speaks to me particularly strongly, or somehow blend them together. So please tell me your favourite Psalter, and for bonus points, where I can find the text online.

Miscellaneous Item the First:

The Archbishop of Canterbury says in his Easter Sermon:

When all's said and done, the call is to every one of us. We need to hear what is so often the question that's really being asked when people say, 'How do you know?' And perhaps the only response that is fully adequate, fully in tune with the biblical witness to the resurrection is to say simply, 'Are you hungry? Here is food.'

I think this is another way of saying that the way to communicate the existence and indeed love of God to the world is to act as if God exists and loves us, take responsibility for acting for God in the world, teach ourselves to act with lovingkindness. Maybe I am reading too much of my own bias into it. I don't know how I managed to miss this when I was growing up.

I do tend to get caught up in the small details at times. It feels like I need a certain amount of structure and ritual to stay focused on the bigger goal of acting with lovingkindness.

Earlier in the sermon the Archbishop discusses two common responses to the "How do you know God exists?" question. One is to make it so personal, so much a matter of opinion, as to be irrelevant. The other is to try to depersonalize it through a sort of real-world prooftexting. I have often said, when asked about my belief in God, that it is the surest thing I know and yet I will concede on an intellectual level that I could, theoretically, logically, be wrong.

I think I need to qualify that. I know, theoretically, logically, that it's entirely possible that the sun might not rise tomorrow (or that the Earth might stop spinning if you want to be accurate). I know, theoretically, logically, that I could wake up and find that all my life so far has been a dream. Both of those are so unlikely that we simply discount them in everyday life. And yet both of them to me are more likely than God not existing. I know that God lives! I know this through a lived experience, a perceived sense of God that is more reliable than any of my physical senses (after all, sometimes I don't hear things clearly the first time, my sense of smell is quite patchy, and my eyes aren't trustworthy at all until I put my spectacles on in the morning). I've tried to explain this before. But I can't really explain it to anyone who hasn't also experienced it, and everyone's experience may well be slightly different. All I can do is try to show it. I don't think I'll ever get that quite right but it's worth it to keep trying. And somehow I'm paraphrasing the sermon again. Repetitive blog is repetitive.

Hat tip to nearly everyone who linked to the Easter Sermon, but particularly to a certain restless bishop who pointed it out specifically in comments on one of his posts.

Miscellaneous Item the Second:

This is a very beautiful poem.

Miscellaneous Item the Third:

I was up too late last night but still got some academic work done today. Go me! Am determined that tomorrow will be still more productive. It's a little over two months until Big Final Exam. This gives me the Fear. I hope that by then I'll find the love, which is stronger. I almost don't care whether I pass or fail as long as I give an honest and loving performance. But passing would be good, too. Failure would be inconvenient and impractical on a number of levels.

Miscellaneous Item the Fourth:

I had a wonderful conversation with an online friend yesterday about trying to change the world from the current competitive system to a more cooperative one, trying to be an agent for good in the world, trying to show people that they can love and trust, while still acknowledging and mostly avoiding the dangers of the world as it currently exists. I wish now that I'd kept a log of it, because it was the sort of conversation where we were typing nearly on top of one another, nearly identical sentences. And I've had some good online exchanges here and there on other topics (not least in comments on some posts here), and some good, life-and-love-affirming conversations in person about teaching and living. Having friends who agree with me doesn't mean I'm right, of course, it's just the peer selection effect, but it does make me feel quite a bit more hopeful at times. Given how contagious grace can be, it seems to me that maybe together we can make a difference, each in our own little way.

Miscellaneous Item the Fifth:

If I don't go to bed now I'm going to have another painful and unproductive day tomorrow. Can't be having with that.

Goodnight, friends.

Monday, 13 April 2009


Oh, what a few days.

Thursday, got to Dorset, walked around a lot. Went to Evening Prayer at Christchurch Priory, because it was there and I could. More said psalmody! But I was made quite welcome. Chickened out of going to Maundy Thursday services, partly because of my hosts' schedule and partly because I'm a big chicken.

Good Friday, walked some more. Spent a lot of time reading, thinking, reflecting; tried not to hide from my hosts too much. And of course, the performance in the evening.

Saturday, Holy Saturday I guess. Went for another walk. I walk a lot if I have the time and energy. I might have walked too far this time, my injured hip isn't very happy with me, but it was a good walk. I walked to Mudeford and along the beach there until I came to some cliffs. I sat and watched the tide coming in for a while. I took off my shoes and socks and let the cold eternal ocean wash my feet and couldn't help think of Maundy Thursday. Then I spent far too long on a train back to London, where I found we were out of certain essential items and so I went out for those and didn't get to any Saturday night vigil services. I was sorry not to.

Yesterday I spent in Leafy Suburb. I went to the 9.30am service at Leafy Suburb Church, and was delighted. The renewal of baptismal vows bit was difficult for me, in that I don't know which of these vows which were made for me when I was a baby are ones I feel I can make for myself. I have no real problems with the Father, the Creator, no problems with the Holy Spirit. But I do balk, I do clam up somehow, when we start talking about the Son. I have no problems singing about it. I have no problems talking about it in an abstract sense, in a sort of model-for-thinking-about-God way. But as much as I want to there are things I don't believe in the way I think the creeds mean them, not when they're the spoken word or the word on the page, and I can't say "I believe this" when I don't. Why am I so afraid to believe this?

Only singing works. I wish I knew why! I wish I knew whether what I believe when I sing is what I actually believe and my intellect is just getting in the way the rest of the time, or whether what I believe when I sing is some sort of ridiculous fantasy and my intellect is right to stop me believing it at other times. I wish I knew. I don't think I will be rid of this problem, this uncertainty, any time soon.

Nevertheless, I was grateful that the vicar was so thorough in her sprinkling of the congregation. There's so much water imagery in this desert faith... the Flood, the Red Sea, baptism. Ritual washing of hands, feet, souls. For a moment all of that was in the drop of water that landed on my cheek.

I'm still itchy about the Eucharist, still not sure whether I'd be welcome (formally or informally), but again, going up for a blessing seemed to be right, yesterday. The text leading up to it was different than on Tuesday. I was sorry not to have the Summary of Law. I missed the very Jewish blessings over the bread and wine. I don't really understand some of the differences, and I find myself wanting to. Is there a guide to C of E liturgy somewhere that's aimed at foreign heretics? I feel like I must be making context errors but I don't know what they are. I want to understand this.

Singing is meaningful to me and singing is, eventually, what I got: I had intended to stick around for Evensong anyway. I asked one of the choir members whether I might sing alto, if I came to the rehearsal in the afternoon... they've all heard me singing in the hymns at Evensong a few times now. I was welcomed with open arms by choir, musical director and clergy. So I sang my little heart out, in the rehearsal and in the service, and I'd do it all again today if I could. I won't say the performance was of a very high musical standard; the choir does very well for the amount of rehearsal and the spread of skills they have, but it's not what I'm used to at Academic Institution. But it meant something, and I believed every word I sang with every particle of my being. I managed to avoid tears but my eyes were quite ready to add their own water to my cheeks.

I think sung creeds and sung Eucharist might change my understanding and experience of Christianity in profound ways, with enough repetition and in an environment of loving kindness.

At the other church I at which I attend Evensong I don't think I would have the courage to ask to sing in the choir. I've been to about as many services by now, and people are welcoming enough, but there isn't the warmth of spirit. I think that when I am looking for a church to attend in the area of London I'm moving to, I need to look for somewhere that has the warmth of spirit that I can feel at Leafy Suburb Church. It may be a while before I can spare my Sunday mornings for singing in a choir but I hope to be able to do so at some point: it seems to be where I belong in church. There is a part of me that considers moving to Leafy Suburb, but it would make my commute to my existing teaching work, my existing social network, and Sweetie rather horrible, and wonderful as the people of Leafy Suburb Church are, I don't think I want to start over yet again. Leafy Suburb Church can't be the only one with that sort of community. That love must exist elsewhere. I hope I can find it, and add to it.

During the afternoon I had lunch with some choir members and then went for a walk. It was more of a sit than a walk really, I found a comfortable park bench and sat on it to read for a while, and then I walked a bit and found a comfortable tree to sit under and sat there reading for a while. My hip was hurting too much to do any serious walking. It's better today.

There has not been much time in all of this for reading teh internets. I may or may not catch up today in amongst various chores. Tomorrow it is nose back to the grindstone: I need to get the write-up for Big Project out of the way, as well as getting a good start on various other projects.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Next Year in Jerusalem Rebuilt

I went to Seder last night, not with people I know from my previous foray into Judaism but with the family of a friend I've known less than a year, but who has become very dear to me in that time.

What a wonderful experience. I have so much missed going to Seder these last few years. There was too much food, of course. There was a good mix of tunes I know and tunes I don't, and I followed those parts of the service in Hebrew better than I expected I would be able to.

I was struck by the contrast with the said Eucharist the night before, so stark and solemn. And yet that level of solemnity is beautiful too, though I can generally appreciate it more if it is sung.

I couldn't help but think that both these stories, ultimately, are about God's mercy, God's redemption: the Passover the rescue of a nation, the Passion the rescue of the world.

And I couldn't help remember, with the bread and the wine, Jesus saying, "Do this in remembrance of me." Which is what I did. How incongruent and yet very fitting to be sitting around a table with twelve other people for Passover as I did so.

Body and Blood? To me, only in a very loose but very real sense: when we eat anything at all we are eating what God has provided, we are consuming manna from heaven. It's a sort of flip side of "whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me." All Creation is God's. When we harm it we bring God pain. When we eat we let God feed us, when we drink it is by God's grace that our thirst is quenched.

We can decide whether (or how?) to serve God in our hearts, thoughts, words, actions. That isn't always easy.

There's something more I'm trying to get at here, something just beneath the surface where I can't find the words. Thoughts?

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Who do you say that I am?

What is a Christian?

It really depends who you ask. Some say that being Christian means following Jesus. Some say it means worshiping Jesus as Lord and King. Some say it means acting with love in the world.

Am I a Christian? Again, it depends who you ask. I don't suppose God minds much either way what I call myself.

There are people who would classify me as Christian based on my spiritual practice: I pray daily using Christian prayers and I attend church most weeks, though not on Sunday mornings as is traditional. But I don't think that going to church makes me a Christian (where did I read that line about going to the garage not making you a car?), and I don't think that using Christian prayers or prayer structures makes me a Christian. I do think that such prayer can be transformative and over time it may transform me into being Christian (or more Christian, if you think I already am). That's a risk I'm willing to take, if it also makes me more loving, more compassionate.

There are people who would classify me as Christian because on some level I am trying to engage with God, to discern God in the world, in a Christian context. There's a lot of Christian doctrine that I don't believe or can't relate to, a lot of detail that I am trying to understand and really failing to grasp most of the time. But I don't propose that one has to understand all the doctrine to be Christian. Wanting to understand it may be a considerable step.

But... I am not trying to understand God in a Christian context because I think that is the only true or valid context, but rather for more pragmatic reasons. I tried elsewhere. I got so pissed off with Christian doctrine and the hypocrisy I saw in the Christian church that I up and left for ten years, and looked elsewhere. It didn't work very well. I learned that all religions have doctrine with which I will struggle, all faiths have a motley assortment of adherents, some of whom are perhaps more spiritually astute than others. So I'm trying to understand Christianity because it's more convenient than trying to understand another faith. It or some variation of it is the dominant faith in the culture where I grew up, it is the established religion in the country where I live, and though I will need to learn a lot to get close to understanding it I have a head start as much of the worship and study materials are already in English and easily accessible. I need to consciously acknowledge and discern God in my life, but every lens I can look through is speckled or tinted or just plain cracked. I may as well use the lens that is closest to hand. I need to talk to God, to worship God, but I'm not very good at finding the right words. I may as well use the same imperfect words as the established church in this country, and hope God will, in mercy, know what I mean.

Some would use creeds as the ultimate earthly test of whether someone is Christian. If Christianity were a faith only of belief and not of practice then I might agree with that. But I don't fully agree with any of the Christian creeds as I currently understand them. And I've always been of the opinion that what you do or attempt to do is more important than dogmatic adherence to a set of rules about what you may or may not believe to be true.

There is a song, most of which I can't remember the words for, but the chorus ends "...and they'll know we are Christians by our love." By our love.

I fall short there, too. I'd love to love the world more. I am growing in that, every day, every hour even; as time passes my awareness of God's love mostly increases and my love for the world seems to increase in parallel with that. But my actions don't reflect that as they could. I try, and fail. If being a shining example of God's love in the world is what it is to be Christian, then I desperately want to be Christian... and I know I'll never get there, I'll never reach a standard high enough that I don't feel I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. But it's worth trying anyway.

If wanting to be a shining example of God's love in the world, if trying to do that and failing most of the time but trying anyway, is what makes someone Christian, then I already am.

I still don't know where that leaves me with taking Eucharist! People like their labels and rituals. But with all due respect, that seems like a small doctrinal detail if I've the potential, the opportunity, to act for and with God in all of life. Maybe I'll change my opinion on that if my understanding of sacrament changes, but if loving action isn't an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace then I don't know what is. As it's a small doctrinal detail that some people take very seriously, though, I'll abstain until I have a better understanding.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

miscellany; and a prayer for the clergy

Today has felt better than yesterday did. I got some work done in the morning, not as much as I should have done but more than yesterday! I saw a friend for lunch and another for an afternoon walk. I haven't had to take any painkillers.

Went to Leafy Suburb Church this evening.

There was no choir or choir director as it's a weekday. For someone who sings all the good bits of worship and sings all the bits that feel awkward, having an almost entirely spoken service was really very odd and rather hard work. But there was still a resonance to it that I can't explain.

The Eucharist seems strange and familiar to me, at the same time. The blessings over the bread and wine are near word-for-word translations of the equivalent Jewish brachot and I found that comforting for some reason. I keep coming back to what The Ostrich said about Eucharist and it sort of makes sense in a way I can't quite articulate. Maybe I'll get it eventually, maybe I'll even take communion at some point. But going up for a blessing seemed right, this evening.

I love having the Summary of the Law as part of worship. I think maybe I just need to print it out and stick it in my small prayer book and start saying it along with my other prayers.

The Peace, always a favourite part of childhood services, remains a favourite, and I was struck again by how welcoming the congregation there is.

I spoke to the Vicar briefly about the Sekr1t Pr0ject. I'll e-mail her, next week after everything is a bit calmer. Can't say more without risking giving the secret away--mentioning it at all is a bit dodgy in fact.

I find myself praying tonight for clergy. Deacon Friend has a lot to deal with and Holy Week is in some ways the worst time to deal with it, and in other ways perhaps the best. Various other clergy I know, online or in person, well or as acquaintances, are struggling with various things right now. And it's a tough week, a lot of hard work, trying to enable or facilitate or lead meaningful worship for others without losing sight of the important things themselves, trying to move Heaven and Earth and also trying to hold them together. I pray that the clergy I know and the clergy I don't know are granted the stamina and courage to get through this week. I pray that they will be offered help and support wherever it is needed, and be able to accept it. I pray that they are able to draw comfort and strength from the message of resurrection, unconditional love and eternal life that they are called to preach. I'm just a confused monotheist, but I care and I pray.

Monday, 6 April 2009


I'm still quite a bit more tired than I thought. And today is not a great day pain-wise. I don't seem to be dealing with either of these very well.

Today I appear to have:

-done one load of laundry, which I am having to do again because the washer did not work right and the soap did not go in.
-written a self-indulgent blog post that is too long for anyone to want to read
-failed to do any academic work at all
-failed to do any tidying, which I was meant to be doing this morning, other than the laundry
-been a wittering, mind-wandery, silly fool in comments on other people's blogs

Bah. I don't like how this post is going.

Good things I have done today:
-thought about my Sekr1t Pr0ject (shhh!) and realised some of what I was trying to do is just prevarication and I need to go ahead and make a decision already
-got dressed
-ate food

And I will keep making it better:
-will shortly go for a walk in the glorious sunshine; it is a nice day for prayer in the park, I think
-will teach later, which I'm looking forward to.

So there.


Last night I posted a sort of snapshot of my current beliefs.

Today I am going to look at a more practical side of things.

I would say that the major change in my spiritual practice over the last few months has been that I am regularly engaging in structured prayer in a way that I have not before.

When I was young, one of the problems I had with Christianity as I encountered it then was that it seemed to be something we did on Sundays, and very fleetingly with grace before meals, and that was it. When I was very small I was taught to say bedtime prayers but it was obvious as I grew older that nobody else in the family did this. Somehow I stopped, too. I did try to pray in church, but my experience of church wasn't something that supported my private prayer. It didn't help that we moved every few years and so our little family was the only continuous community we had.

When I was observing Judaism I took on a lot. I took on habits of dress that were fairly restrictive. I took on dietary changes that make giving up chocolate for Lent look like a walk in the park. I took on making Shabbat, complete with timers for the lights and not cooking after sundown on Friday and not carrying--and there was no eruv in North London then. And all of these felt like prayer, in their way. But they were also very much things I did to fit in with the community. The bar is set pretty high for conversion to Orthodox Judaism and much of the time I found myself concerned with 'passing'. The community was warm and welcoming, and I wanted to be part of that.

Communal prayer in Judaism was strange and mysterious to me at first, then grew more comfortable and beautiful as I learned more of the language. Last spring I found, visiting a friend, that I could still get through much of the Grace After Meals, despite not having prayed it for years. But... again, my communal prayer did not support my private prayer. As a woman I would only be expected to pray once per day but I did not even manage that, most days. I did not even manage grace after meals when I was alone. I think this is partly because it was too hard for me in Hebrew, and partly because I was already doing so much and worrying so much about how I looked to others. When I moved to a geographical location where the community was less accessible, eventually all my practices faded away. My prayer had been so community-based that without the trappings of community it couldn't sustain itself.

I suddenly feel nervous about telling teh entire internets about my prayer life. A bit silly really. But I don't want to start writing about this just for the comments, I don't want to present myself one way and then find that actually, I'm another way, I don't want to walk into a trap of saying I do something adn then feeling a sham on days I don't manage to do it. So please, friends, take this, like yesterday's post, as a snapshot of where I am now, not a commitment to stay there.

Sometime in January I started praying Morning Prayer, first from the Oremus website and then the Common Worship version from the Church of England site. I think it was very soon after I read Jane R's book, When in Doubt, Sing... somehow I stopped worrying about doing it wrong, stopped worrying about agreeing with every single word and decided it would be better to pray, if that's what I want to do, than not pray. I've missed a few mornings here and there, usually due to internet outage. When I am home or alone I sing most of this, and read the readings aloud. When I am staying with Sweetie or when I'm so disorganised that I end up praying on the bus I pray silently, but that often means singing in my head. An interesting recent development has been finding myself imagining the psalmody in parallel fourths and fifths; I didn't make a conscious decision to try it, just noticed I was doing it.

I found myself wanting to pray by mid-afternoon most days. So I did, but sometimes the words wouldn't come, or more often I'd get distracted. I have a very wandery mind. It's easy to slide from praying to the sort of fidgety worrying that just wears me down.

I bought a book, Work and Prayer, which has Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Midday Prayer and an order for Compline in it, for Monday to Saturday. I started using the Midday Prayer and Compline many days. The midday prayer has most often been silent and I might get to it anywhere between about 10.30am and 5pm. It's hard to control my schedule in the middle of the day so I end up praying in breaks from rehearsals, praying in lunch break, praying on the train or the bus. Compline, I usually sing, though quietly so as not to wake my flatmates. I've been doing both of these most days since I bought that book, which the magic of the internets tells me was at the end of February. I'm not as consistent with these as with Morning Prayer.

Work and Prayer lacks much in the way of seasonal variation. Singing Morning Prayer from the C of E website and finding that oh, the text changes for Passiontide, I decided to look at other resources. I poked around the website. I considered printing off the bits I was going to use. I realised that by the time I've finished deciding what I want and printing it I may as well just go and buy a book, so on Friday I did that. I took myself off to the Church House bookshop to see what I could find. I ended up with Daily Prayer, which I will use at home when there is no internet or when I am brave enough to read the scripture from a Bible rather than nicely tucked into a website (this could be a good thing, giving me extra context. Or it could lead to entire mornings spent reading the Bible when I ought to be doing other things. Having a wandery mind is hazardous). But it's a bit big to carry around so I've also got a copy of Time to Pray, which has an order for Prayer During The Day and an order for Compline but more seasonal variation in it than the resource I had been using.

I still want more of the Summary of Law. To me this seems like the most important thing and yet it doesn't seem obviously prominent in any of these structured prayers.

I've also been going to church. I teach on Sunday mornings so the main service is out of the question. In fact I usually teach Sunday afternoons, as well. But my usually-in-the-evening students have cottoned on to the fact that early afternoon is easier for them, and my late-afternoon student can often do earlier in the day. When there is Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church, where Deacon Friend is spending her curacy, I go there if I can juggle my schedule appropriately. I don't know now whether I'm going to see her or for the worship. I've been made to feel very welcome there, despite my coming from so far away. When there is not Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church I go to Church on Hill for Evensong instead, which is in the area where I teach. I have to say, I don't feel as warmly welcomed, I find the music more polished but less heartfelt, and there have been some sermons which left me more confused than anything else. But week after week it's there, and I finish teaching, and I may as well drop by really. So I do.

My teaching schedule has changed a bit; I've lost some students. My first thought, after the teacherly regret, was that I might get to sleep a bit longer on Sundays. My second was that I might find an early service to go to. I'm not sure about that; the transport logistics don't work out very well at all.

I'll be moving house this summer, moving to a different area of London. I'm choosing the area based on many of my friends living there already and the possibilities for teaching from home, among other things. But recently I've also been thinking, "must check out churches in that area, see which are places I might feel comfortable, see where I might get involved even if I still can't make Sunday morning services." I can imagine myself getting to a weeknight Parish Eucharist. I can imagine myself getting to Morning Prayer at 8am somewhere.

I wrote, in an earlier post, of how others have influenced my own spiritual searching. I want to make clear again that none of them have put any pressure on me to change what I am doing or to encourage me to do as they do. In fact, all of them would be saddened, I think, if they thought I were doing this out of some desire to please them. But on days when I feel a bit sluggish, knowing that Deacon Friend will be saying Morning Prayer makes me want to get out of bed and do so too. On days when saying Compline seems like a silly, childish, goody-two-shoes empty ritual, knowing that Catholic Friend prays and takes it seriously helps me to take it seriously, too. And when I read prayer requests, great long lists of them on some of the blogs I read, I offer up my silent or spoken prayers then and there but I am also reminded, invited, to take time to pray at another point in the day. So while I'm not attached to any one community very strongly right now, I do feel supported, generally, by a community of prayer. I think that helps. And I think that maybe part of what I'm looking for in a church is a geographically convenient group of people to pray together with, something that will be able to carry me along when I'm less able to pray on my own than I am right now.

I don't know where I'm going with any of this. It feels like something I am doing out of need and curiosity, not something I am doing out of obligation or trying to impress others. So I am trying to take a wait-and-see approach, trying not to get too attached to this sort of structured prayer as any kind of hard rule but rather trying to remain faithful to the curiosity, trying to see where I end up next.

I've been doing all of this in a Christian context. This is partly because after trying to learn even the slightly familiar but new to me faith of Judaism, I don't underestimate how hard it is to learn something that isn't the mainstream culture. It's partly because the resources for Christian prayer are so accessible online, which is a by-product of some form of Christianity being the mainstream culture again. It's partly because people I love very much happen to be Christian and I want to understand them better. And it's because I think what I perceive as the underlying message of Christianity is true, and I'm willing to put up with some cognitive dissonance on issues like the Trinity if using Christian prayer structures is going to help me love the world better.

I don't think that makes me Christian. More on that in another post, though. This one is too long already.

Sunday, 5 April 2009


Revd Kaeton called this post a statement of faith. That caught me out; I hadn't really intended it to be such, it was more a response to questions, a clarification for my own benefit of ideas that were floating around looking for words.

I struggle with the creeds I grew up with; parts of each of them don't ring true for me at all. But what is any creed but a response to questions, a clarification of ideas?

I've been doing some further clarification this week, talking with friends and also reading what others have written. And I think I do want to write some of this down, have some record of it. It isn't necessarily where I'll end up, it isn't any permanent creed, but it is a snapshot of what I believe right now.

I believe in God. I have always believed in the existence of a Creator God... I cannot remember not believing. That belief has been refined over time and I have come to understand the Creator as being omnipresent, omnipotent, perfect and infinite. And being both perfect and infinite makes God essentially undescribable.

For me, the Oneness of God and the interconnectedness of all things are overwhelming to the point that even very monotheistic Trinitarian doctrine seems to me to be a thought-shorthand, a way to make it easier for humans to think about God rather than describing some innate reality of God. (That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as we remember that what are dealing with is an approximation, a metaphor, a thought-shorthand, not some Absolute Literal Truth.)

I lose sight of it easily, but I believe we are all children of God, beloved of God. I believe all Creation is beloved of God.

I believe we are invited, called if you will, to act to improve the world. This might be through seeking justice for the oppressed, through creating beauty, through showing care for one another. It may be through healing the sick or through feeding the hungry or through seeking truth. But we have been given, through free will, the opportunity to choose to act as agents of God's love for the world, in the world.

Sometimes, I think that it is our responsibility, our obligation, to do this. Other times I am not sure. To me, it seems a very compelling invitation.

But, having been given the choice, we have made mistakes. I'm not sure I can go as far as to say we are fallen, as such, but we are certainly wounded, imperfect, ignorant, incomplete. If we weren't, I'm not entirely sure the choice of right action, the choice of acting as agents of God's love, would be meaningful.

But if God is perfect then by extension (unless I've misdefined 'perfect') God is loving and God is just, and if God is loving and just then, having created us imperfect, God cannot condemn us. So... we are redeemed. We are saved. To my mind, forgiveness is absolutely unconditional and universal. It doesn't matter how horrible you are, it doesn't matter what you believe, who you hurt, you are forgiven. This is hard to swallow: there are people in the world who I sometimes think do not deserve salvation, cannot imagine forgiveness for. Thankfully I am not God! God's mercy is a lot bigger than mine is. God's mercy, like God's love, is infinite.

I only this week realised that if this is the case there must be some sort of life beyond this world, some sort of continuation after death. It surprised me. But I was talking to a friend about my anger at (God? the world?) for the treatment of another friend of mine, who has seen sadness after sadness, though she does so much good work. And I know that what she is going through now will make her, eventually, stronger, but it still seems unfair. And the friend I was talking to said, "Yes, test people, but not to destruction... except we do all die, we are all tested to destruction." So. Either death (as we see it from our side) is not the end, or God is not loving. Ouch! But as I am so often reminded in my life, love is stronger than anything. Even stronger than death. So, quite simply, death cannot be the end. I don't claim to have any details on this. I don't understand what "death is not the end" means, in any sort of practical terms.

God's infinite mercy, unconditional forgiveness, does not mean that our actions do not matter. Because of the interconnectedness of all things, because all Creation is created, any harm that comes to any creature is painful to God. We are not punished for that, because of God's love for us. God bears the pain of our failures, no matter how grave, rather than banish us from grace. But the forgiveness, the lack of punishment, the rescue from eternal condemnation: these don't mean that our actions matter less. They mean, somehow, that our actions matter more. They are our invitation to extend that same lovingkindness to the world, to dare to pass it on.

I don't really know what this means: it's too big for me to imagine. But the more I allow myself to accept the depth of God's love, the more I feel able to love the world.

In summary: Love is stronger. Pass it on.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

On transformation

I'm really tired; it's been a very busy month. But I get to rest now. I'm working half days for the rest of this week and probably most of next, too. I'm even planning on getting out of London briefly.

I wrote this in an e-mail to a friend last night, and I guess it sums things up nicely:

I don't know quite whether I need to grow a thicker skin or shed the one I'm wearing. I'm leaning toward the latter as it doesn't seem to fit very well and all the best things (in music and in the rest of life) seem to happen when I can let go of being so defensive and fearful, but of course I'm also worried about the soft squishy bits underneath, I don't want to end up hiding under a rock. Maybe the skin falls off on its own when the bits it is meant to protect grow too big for it. Or maybe I need to get more sleep! But I can't quite write this off as tiredness, it's been a running issue for too long. It does seem to have come into focus rather a lot in recent weeks.

I don't usually think of times when I'm so very busy as times of growth and change, but I do seem to have been doing some growing and changing despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of work I've done recently. It's not that I think I ever really stand still, more that I seem to be much more aware of changes as they're happening, now, than I have been previously.

As a result of that I have a bunch of posts half-formed in my head. I often need to put things into words and sentences to understand them properly and blogging is one way of doing that. But first I'm going to catch up on some rest.