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.