the parable of the choir

piano

“The greatest choir I have ever heard!” Sandra felt a tingle of electricity running down her spine and the hairs on her arms stood on end as she read the headline in the local newspaper. Last night the choir she had founded – Concordia – had sung as the headline act in the final concert of the town’s music festival. Sandra had to admit that they had sounded incredible. The singers had been lifted by the atmosphere in the theatre and had sung their hearts out.

It had all started eight years ago when Sandra had watched The Choir on television – when Gareth Malone had taken ordinary people and formed them into choirs. Sandra had been excited about the relationships that had formed, but more than that she had been inspired by Gareth’s ability to bring the best out of people and bring them together in harmony to make a wonderful sound together. Sandra had been a singing coach for a number of years so felt that she ought to be able to do the same. She had asked her friends and family and they had formed a small choir. As they grew in confidence the choir members invited their friends and colleagues to join them and the choir also grew in numbers so that now there were 35 of them meeting once a week to rehearse.

Concordia rehearsed in the local school on a Monday evening, alongside other evening classes. Sandra didn’t plan any concerts or performances, she was just enjoying being the choir director and the choir members seemed to enjoy singing together. But then people started listening outside the doors of the school hall after they had finished their evening classes, and then once one of them had sneaked in to listen at the back of the hall a small crowd would do the same and they had an audience. Sandra didn’t mind. She was focused on leading the choir and getting the best out of them. What she didn’t know was that one of the uninvited audience worked in the Town Council promoting community activities and they were planning a music festival. When the music festival organiser rang Sandra out of the blue and asked if the choir would like to perform as part of the event she was stunned. Sandra had never envisaged that the choir would do anything but rehearse together. The following Monday she told the choir about the invitation and, after some initial shyness, the choir had enthusiastically voted to do it.

Things escalated from there. Before Sandra knew what was happening she found that Concordia were listed in the final event of the festival. Then, just a day before the performance, the headline act had to pull out due to an attack of laryngitis and Concordia were promoted to the headline act. For their first public performance! But what a performance it had been. A standing ovation at the end had been followed by two encores – so great was the audience’s applause.

But the morning after the performance, as she read the article in the newspaper, the elation and euphoria ebbed away. Even though the reporter had written a really glowing review of the performance and had clearly been moved and thrilled by it there was no mention of Sandra by name, or even any mention of the musical director at all. It had been her idea, her choir, her hard work and her leading but it was as if she had not been there. Where was her acclaim?

At first the choir only sang for themselves and their own enjoyment. What aspects of (church) life are like that?

Are there times when we feel a bit like Sandra at the end – unappreciated and unacknowledged? What might you say to Sandra to encourage her?

Who are the unappreciated people who might appreciate a similar word of encouragement?

Be blessed, be a blessing

a partly political broadcast

Iceberg 1999 by M A Felton

Regular readers of this irregular blog will realise that I am rarely overtly political in what I write. I am certainly not party-political, preferring to keep my allegiance to myself, however much of what I write will have political overtones and undertones. You can’t write about poverty without being political. You can’t write about truth without it being a political comment. And, I dare to believe, you can’t write about faith without being political because faith is not lived out in a vaccuum, but is all about matters of life and death, right and wrong, hope and expectation and these are all political issues.

On the whole I have kept quiet about the defining political debate of this generation – Brexit. But the recent parliamentary debates on this have left such an unpleasant taste in my mouth that I feel I need to put fingers to keyboard and commit some more words to the millions that have been written about this so far. So if you don’t want to read a rant, look elsewhere, because this is most definitely one of those!

This whole brexit debacle has revealed the deep flaws within our political system in the UK, and in particular that party-politics has put our country in deep peril. We were led into a referendum on this subject by a Prime Minister whose party was threatening to fracture on this fault line (and who has been notably absent since his resignation when his ‘remain’ campaign lost). He gambled that he would win the referendum and therefore keep both his party together but lost and his party is even more divided than before.

The Prime Minister who replaced him has always been struggling with the establishing some sort of coherent policy in spite of the divisions within her party (and perhaps even within herself as she had voted ‘remain’ but is now resolutely determined to lead the country out of the EU). How many ministers have resigned during her leadership? This was most notable after the disastrous Chequers cabinet meeting in which she declared that she had established unity about the way ahead and within a matter of a day or so several significant members of her cabinet had resigned and declared the plan ‘unworkable’! These politicians have put self-interest before the interests of the country.

There was the ridiculous 5 day debate in Parliament before Christmas when Parliamentary time was dedicated to the question of whether to support the Prime Minister’s deal that she had negotiated with the EU and when it became clear that because of the divisions in her own party and the lack of support within Parliament for her deal the PM suspended the debate without a vote. When it was repeated in early 2019, with no substantive amendments to the deal being debated the PM suffered a humiliating defeat.

And most recently Parliament has debated a number of amendments and voted for one that says that we must renegotiate the deal when the EU has said that there will be no renegotiation on the issues that have proved so contentious. In the midst of the discussions and debate party-politics and personal ideologies seems to have taken priority over the needs of the country.

It’s as if we are on the Titanic steaming fast towards the Iceberg and have voted that the Iceberg needs to change direction!

And, in case you accuse me of solely anti-government bias, I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition has done much to help in this time of national crisis either. Instead of holding the government to account he seems to have resigned himself to a quiet acquiescence that we are going to collide with the iceberg and hope that in the ensuing wreckage there will be an opportunity for him to launch a lifeboat that makes him PM instead.

The country needs to change course drastically!

There have been so many false promises that it is impossible to list them all, but each time they are broken the public trust in politicians is eroded just a bit more. Politicians have made outrageous claims about what will happen in the future when they know that they have no way of backing them up with facts or proof. Fantastical conjecture has been cynically peddled as certain reality (‘£350million for the NHS’ on the side of a bus, by way of example). And some newspapers have been guilty of perpetuating and propagating these lies in the guise of facts in order to further the thinly-veiled political aims of their owners who hide in the background in their wealth-protected bunkers. Others have even protected themselves by investing their wealth overseas, and some in EU countries!!!

You might be able to discern how upset I am about all of this. I did vote ‘remain’ and still believe that leaving the EU is a massive mistake. I fervently believe that what is euphemistically called a ‘no deal brexit’, ‘hard brexit’ or even a ‘clean brexit’ would be catastrophic for the UK, and in particular for those who are most vulnerable in our society. To me it is a devastating indictment of many of those whose voices are loudest about how we should leave the EU that they are among the wealthiest in our country and least likely to be adversely affected by the economic tsunami that I believe is threatening on the horizon.

I am praying hard that somehow in the midst of the parliamentary chaos voices of reason and truth will be heard and listened to. I have written to my MP (who I have seen on TV pronouncing how ‘brexit means brexit’ and how we should leave with no deal, so I don’t expect him to listen to me). I hope and pray that somehow, when peering over the edge into the abyss of brexit, enough politicians will find the courage to set aside party allegiance, to ignore the whips and vote in a way that puts the interests of the poorest in our country first. Trust and truth are not the only victims of this.

Whether or not you agree with my analysis or political standpoint, I hope that you will at least be praying.

Be blessed, be a blessing


is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

a new you?

So, a new year has begun. The fireworks displays are no longer burned on our retinas, the echoes of Auld Lang Syne have faded away and whatever passes for normal life is being resumed just as it was in 2018. Of course there are a few differences: we have to get used to writing 2019 on letters, cheques and so on but in reality not a lot has changed in the changing of the calendar year.

Except that at the start of a new year we are encouraged (or perhaps challenged) to think of new things. In the days of paper diaries I used to love having new, fresh pages to write on. I would resolve that this year I would write neatly (that lasted until the first time an entry had to be changed). And resolutions are the flavour of the month in January, aren’t they?

We resolve to be fitter, healthier, happier, more efficient, better organised, more eco-friendly, more friendly… any number of possibilities for a new and improved version of yourself. It’s the lifestyle equivalent of having a new diary with fresh pages – so may possibilities to improve and enhance our life and establish a hoped-for better-than-last-year feeling.

It’s been interesting this year to notice how many people are suggesting on social media that you don’t need a ‘new you’, you should be content with the you that you are. And I agree with that, to an extent. Nobody should feel under pressure to create or innovate a new way of being simply because others have led them (or advertisers have conned them) into believing that they are not good enough, they don’t have enough of the right things in their life and that they ‘should do better’ (to quote many of my school reports).

But I also want to say that being content with the me that I am does not preclude me from wanting to be the best me that I can be. I know that there is always room for improvement. There are always ways in which I can better fulfil my purpose in life. They will always be new experiences, new people and new opportunities that will shape me so that I am not the same ‘me’ that I was last year.

So how do we hold these two in tension? I think the answer is to recognise where the motivation comes from. If it is external we should regard it with suspicion and caution – does that influencer have my best interests at heart or someone else’s (including theirs)? If it is internal we should treat it seriously, weigh it, evaluate it and if we want to pursue it then we can do so with the liberty of someone who is not under duress.

That does not mean we should not listen to other people or take their advice. Neither does it mean that we should always listen to our own whimsical ideas and act rashly. Wisdom is required. Discernment is beneficial. Because if you want to be the best you you can be I am fairly sure that there is always more that can be done – the art is to work out what that is, whether it is achievable, and to work towards it diligently and enthusiastically.

In the Bible the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be a book that is full of doom and gloom. Everything is deemed to be meaningless and pointless. It could have been written by Eeyore, AA Milne’s lugubrious donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Yet right at the end Eeyore (or possibly the King) comes to a startling conclusion, having looked at the whole of life (Ecclesiastes 12):

13 Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Fearing God is not being terrified of him, but having a sense of awe about him. Keeping his commandments is not about following a rulebook but living sensibly to get the most out of life. And knowing that you can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes means we can live openly and honestly. And because there’s a sequel to the Old Testament (aka the New Testament) we know that God has also done all that is necessary to deal with the parts of us that need some more serious renovation.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

marking your card(s)

Earlier this week I was a bit flummoxed by the arrival of a Christmas card in the post. No, there’s nothing unusual about Christmas cards being delivered through the UK postal system. What flummoxed me was that I did not recognise one of the names on the card and the other signature was illegible so it didn’t give any clues.

I checked the postmark on the envelope and that gave me a geographical clue that has not helped at all. I am fairly sure that the card was not sent in error as it was addressed to me by name, as was the envelope. It’s frustrating because I don’t know who to thank if I see them.

But it did get me thinking about why we send Christmas cards. What’s the motivation? I have a few ideas about this. The first is that I think there are two main categories of cards – some are sent because of obligation and some are sent by choice:

Obligation – some cards are sent to people because we feel we ought to send them a card because of their role (eg business colleagues) or familial relationship with us. That does NOT mean we send the card grudgingly, but we do send it relatively automatically. These people will always be on our Christmas card list.

Choice – we send some cards to people because we have made an active decision to send them a card. We want to keep in touch with these people (even if it is just once a year) because we value them. These people would not receive a card because of their role or familial relationship with us, but even though it’s a value judgement as to whether we send a card to them we can’t deduce that they are more important if they are on this list.

So now some of you who receive a Christmas card from us will be trying to work out which category you fall into. Actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a card is sent. But what is the motivation behind cards received? I think it be any, some or all of these:

Keeping in touch – there are some people we don’t really hear from at any other time in the year. Our relationship is limited to the exchange of a printed piece of cardboard in December. But it is important to keep in touch with these people. We would be sad to lose touch completely. And sometimes we write things in the cards like, “We really ought to get together next year…” to express that desire, and on rare occasions we actually get around to it and it’s great.

Sharing news – there has been a noticeable drop-0ff in the number of cards we receive that have a letter in them that tells us what the sender (and their family) have been up to in the past year, and perhaps plans for the coming year. We enjoy reading these letters and try not to compare their year enviously with ours, particularly when they tell us about the six week holiday in the luxury resort in Hawaii.

Assurance of affection – some people with whom we are frequent contact send a card because they value that friendship / relationship. They send a card to confirm that the relationship is still valuable to them, and we return the compliment because we want to do the same. It can be awkward when someone sends a card for this reason and one is not reciprocated. It may be that the ‘replyer’ may not feel the same, or it may be that their card sending lacked efficiency. Sadly silence does not communicate the reason. There are always people with whom I have this imbalance and it’s usually me who fails to send, almost always because of the latter reason.

Expectation – this is almost always a card sent from the first of the two main categories. Not to send a card to these people may be considered rude or thoughtless. 

Charity – this is something I have seen growing where people post online that they are not sending cards this year but will be making a charity donation on behalf of all of their friends. I am attracted to this because it avoids some awkwardness and blesses others but it has the danger of the notice not being seen and people wondering whether you still care.

It’s complicated isn’t it? But I am reassuring myself with a couple of reflections:

There are very few people who will hold a grudge if I have forgotten to send them a card. This is not an excuse for failing to send one that you want to / intend to send but can make you feel better when your eye keeps getting drawn to that card on the mantelpiece and you know it’s too late to send it now.

A phone call or electronic communication is almost as good. If I have forgotten I can still call, text, message, send social media messages, and so on.

Behind the Christmas story we find all of these things: God sent his son into the world because of the relationship he has with us as our creator (obligation) and because he wants that relationship to be better (choice). The Incarnation (God with us) is his way of keeping in touch with us (and some of us manage it once a year at a Carol Service) – he would love to meet up with us next year. In the Christmas message he shares the good news of peace, hope, joy and love – there’s no need to be envious, he offers the same to all of us. He wants to assure us of his affection for us – not just ‘thinking of you’ but a passion and enthusiasm for you that will not give up even if you don’t reply. And he promised he’d do it, creating an expectation that we find fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire is to bless all of humanity, with no exceptions, although his method of communication to us all risks his message not being heard and some people may wonder if he cares. 

Be blessed, be a blessing (and please don’t be too upset if you don’t get a card from me!)

seeing the light

Last week the Regional Team of which I am a part was on retreat for 24 hours. As a part of this process we were invited to share some thoughts on the theme of ‘Light’. I went for Psalm 36:9 – “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The phrase ‘in your light we see light’ fascinated me because from a physics perspective it does not make sense. To paraphrase CS Spurgeon, you don’t need a candle to see the sun. God’s light surely shines so brightly that we do not need any help seeing it. So what does it mean? My commentaries were distinctly unhelpful as they all seem to have struggled with interpreting the phrase and have therefore passed over it without comment (thus not living up to their names). So I have had to try to work out what I believe it means and this is what I have come up with – I think the sense of it is that it is when we look at things in God’s light we see things as he sees them: I think it may be about seeing things from God’s perspective. In the Bible ‘darkness’ signifies death, destruction, evil and misery while ‘light’ represents victory over those things – life, hope, clarity and joy. To see things in God’s light is to take a more positive outlook on life and see things from a new perspective.

And I have thought of a few illustrations of what this might mean…

When you look at a glass of water do you see it as half-full or half-empty? Or from God’s perspective do you see a glass and some water and seek to find someone who is thirsty to give it to? If that’s a bit esoteric here’s one I think we can all grasp – Jesus’ death on the cross appeared to be a tragic defeat by the forces of evil but from God’s perspective was the moment when the victory over death was won and that was reinforced by the resurrection. Or how about when we see a small, struggling, ageing church (ie the congregation) – does God see a group of people who are more likely to rely on him because they have nothing left and who are best situated to reach the other older people in the community with the good news?

As we are in the season of Advent and each week more candles are lit to mark our progress to the birth of Christ may we all be given the gift of (in)sight to see things and people from God’s perspective and look for the Kingdom at work, growing secretly and bursting forth in unexpected ways.

May we see things in God’s light so that we see his glory..

Be blessed, be a blessing