Saturday, 21 May 2011

Camping it up?

I may be being a little premature here, but it seems, due to the lack of reports from the Antipodes of major cataclysm or of missing persons, that the much-heralded (in some quarters) Rapture has not begun - not yet anyhow.

Harold Camping, an octogenarian Pastor from the United States had declared that, through his study of Scripture, he is absolutely certain that the Rapture - the return of Jesus to Earth and the taking up of true believers to be with him in the air as the opening scene of Judgement Day - would take place at around 18:00 today 21st May 2011. Apparently this would be a rolling event, beginning in New Zealand and ending in Western Samoa over a 24-hour period (so at least those of us in the West would get advanced notice - how thoughtful!).

He had come up with this date, as I say, through careful and prolonged study of the Bible. He had, of course, come up with a date in 1994 through the same study methods, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that he may have made a miscalculation again. The problem as I see it is that he seems to be treating the Bible as if it has some kind of hidden, coded message in it, that only certain people can decipher. Now that sounds like Gnosticism to me, and I thought that mainstream Christianity had written that off as heresy centuries ago.

The Bible is not some code that needs deciphering. It is a record of God's dealings with humanity and humanity's struggling with and searching for God over the course of a couple of thousand years, and it has been and is a means by which humanity has continued to struggle with and search for meaning and purpose in life. For those of us of the Judeao-Christian tradition it is a means by which God reveals God's nature and God's will to humanity: not in some hidden way but clearly and plainly, chiefly through the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Bible reveals to be Messiah - the Christ, the Anointed of God - and the Son of God. And in one of his clearest statements Jesus is recorded as saying, of his own return: "No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." [Matthew 25:36 NIV]

His message was not one of 'you must escape this wicked world' but one of 'the Kingdom of God is among you'. It was a message of affirming life on Earth, not writing it off for some 'pie in the sky when you die'. It was a message of bringing dignity and worth to all humanity, irrespective of social status, culture, race, gender or sexuality. It was a message of transforming this world, not escaping to the next one.

That is the clear message of the Bible. You don't need special teaching to understand that: you simply need to offer yourself to a relationship of trust with the one who declared himself to be 'The Way, The Truth and The Life', who came that we might have life, in all its fullness, now, today, here, in this world.

Now to me that makes so much more sense than any of Camping's ramblings.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Holy space

Out for my walk this morning I was listening to a 'Thought for the Day' from earlier this week on my iPod, and the speaker, a Buddhist, was speaking about it being an anniversary in the Buddhist tradition of Gautama's 'enlightenment' sat beneath a fig tree. I then listened to a recording of Radio 4's 'Sunday' programme, and one of the reports was of a book which lists the 500 holiest sites in (I think) Britain. Towards the end of my walk I popped into the local newsagents and had a brief chat with Mahmood, the newsagent, who I'd not seen for a while. He told me that he'd just returned from a visit to Mecca (I presume it was his 'Haj'), and was quite obviously moved by the experience of visiting that place which is of such significance to Islam.

This left me reflecting on the importance of place in the spiritual life, and the linked idea of pilgrimage. My own tradition of British Methodism has a strong nostalgic sense of place around Epworth Rectory (John & Charles Wesley's birthplace), the New Room in Bristol (The first Methodist preaching house), and Wesley's Chapel in London, where John Wesley died, and there are many from around the world who journey to these places on a regular basis.

25 years ago I was a student at Cliff College, a Methodist Bible college situated in the Peak District of Derbyshire, and every year since then I have returned there for their annual 'Festival' weekend around the Spring Bank holiday. A friend of mine, who was a student at the same time as me, places his conversion to Christ at that event back in the early 1980s, and could point out the tree under which he was standing on the terrace when it happened. The place is important to him - something significant happened to him there (like Buddha) under that tree.

Last evening we held our annual meeting at Wesley Hall, and we talked - among many other things - about the space we use for worship and mission. In silence, sorrow and celebration; in sermons and in song, people have, over the years, found God in that place. God is, of course, in all things and in all places, but there are times when that presence is focused and enhanced in certain locations - when God's Spirit is evoked by the prayers of God's people over the years concentrated in that one spot. And perhaps the art, the outcome, the end of Spirituality is to recognise the presence of the Divine wherever we are, for 'surely the Lord is in this place.' And is perhaps part of the role of the Church is to help provide and maintain 'space' for people to encounter God for themselves, in their own way, in their own time.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

'Time Machine' Tour

Last evening was spent at the Motorpoint Arena here in Sheffield for a concert by Rush, a Canadian band who've been recording since 1974 and whom I've been following since my teens. It was the first time I'd been to a concert at the Arena, and I have to say it's an impressive space. My only quibble would be the 25 minute wait to be served at the t-shirt stand, but otherwise a great venue.

Unlike many bands Rush are not touring a new album at the moment - they've got one in the pipeline, but are waiting to complete this tour before putting the finishing touches to 'Clockwork Angels'. Having said that, they did include two tracks from the forthcoming album: 'BU2B' and 'Caravan', both of which were released as a single last year.

The main purpose of the tour is to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic 1981 album 'Moving Pictures', and part 2 of the show began with them playing this album in full. The rest of the set included songs from across their repertoire, from their eponymous first album to their last release 'Snakes and Arrows', all of which were performed with skill and energy by consumate professionals. The lighting was complimentary and at times spectacular, as were the occasional pyrotechnics, and the set was punctuated and illustrated with video footage performed by band members and animation sequences. If I had one complaint it would be that it was a bit loud, but then this is an old man talking!

Highlights for me: Spirit of Radio, YYZ, the opening sections of 2112 and La Villa Strangiato as the first part of the encore. A great night, with a great band!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Looking backwards, moving forwards

So, we went away this weekend with a group from Wesley Hall to think through some issues as well as to have fun and fellowship together. The theme I decided to tackle was 'Looking backwards, moving forwards', which of course if not handled correctly just leaves you flat on your face (or worse).

We took our inspiration from Luke's story of the walk to Emmaus, and the conversation that Jesus had with Cleopas and his companion. We began by looking backwards: assessing where we were as a church, what our history was, and what we valued most about the life of the church during the time that we've been a part of it. For some of us this was only about 5 years, for others it was a lifetime - 60 years or more. On the list were:
  • The atmosphere of friendship and welcome;
  • the spiritual & personal support that people received there, particularly through home groups;
  • the willingness to take risks and grasp opportunities for mission and service;
  • outreach that was arranged at times when most people could be involved - in the daytime - and was targeted at the local community;
  • the stability and permanence of leadership, and the teamwork which enabled people to use their giftings;
  • the quality of worship, particularly of the worship group and worship leaders;
  • generosity, fun and lots of eating!
I was heartened by this list, particularly after being their minister for the last 7 years, and particularly at a time of difficulty for the church caused by building issues.

There are three ways that we can deal with the past: we can live in it, we can discard it as irrelevant, or we can embrace it (but not hang on to it) and move on into the future - as Mary Magdalene did with the Risen Jesus. So we then thought about moving forward, and I invited them to consider things they'd love to see as part of the life of Wesley Hall, drawing on where we are now. The results were greatly encouraging...
  • More young people and young families in the life of the church;
  • a continuity of leadership, teaching and preaching, alongside developing new leaders and allowing/ enabling people to maximise their talents and gifts, and encouraging involvement in all aspects of church life;
  • a desire to develop contemporary worship further; to create more opportunities for worship mid-week; and to encourage corporate prayer;
  • to use the space we have creatively, and to make greater use of opportunities to promote events and ministries in the community.
That's not a bad place for a church to be!

We finished by looking at the life of the early church in Acts 4:23-35, and at how they moved forward at a difficult time in their history. We looked at how they:
  • faced their fears - were realistic about their situation
  • faced their Father - were reassured about their support
  • faced their future - were reliant on the Spirit
That's the only way to be, and I'm looking forward to being a part of that future with them, if that's what God wants of me.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

New music

I've been catching up with some new music recently, and some old tunes too.

My most recent acquisition is a compilation put together by Echelon Effect, available for free here, called Singularity 1. It features tracks from a variety of musicians and bands in what can probably best be described as the 'post-rock' or 'ambient' genres. If you like Sigur Ros, Tangerine Dream or Radiohead there's probably something for you here. Stand out track on the first listen has to be Matt Stevens' 'Sand Part 2'.

Also in that 'post-rock' area is the latest offering from Blackfield - 'Welcome to my DNA'. Blackfield is a collaboration between Aviv Geffen & Steve Wilson, and their music has a distinctly mellow feel to it compared to Wilson's better known work as guitarist with Porcupine Tree. One of my stand-out albums of 2011 so far, this is an excellent introduction to a more progressive vibe without the lengthy compositions that can sometimes be a turn-off for some.

At the more popular end of music we find the latest offerings by Elbow, Fleet Foxes and Joe Bonamassa, each of whom have their own distinctive style. Elbow have consistently turned out exquisitely-crafted songs, coupled with Guy Garvey's distinctive vocals and a contemplative feel that is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, and their latest release - Build a Rocket Boys - sticks with the tried and tested formula to great effect. Also continuing with a winning formula are Fleet Foxes, whose debut offering in 2008 brought their close harmonies and quirky acoustic sound to a wider audience. Their latest offering - Helplessness Blues - carries that same sound and brings a sound of summer, of long dreamy days, to your ears. Joe Bonamassa has been playing and singing the blues since his earliest days, and his new release - Dust Bowl - gives us another hour or so of hard-rocking, guitar-driven blues in the tradition of Clapton or Gallagher. A man with a terrific work ethic, this is his third solo offering in as many years, alongside his sparkling debut with Black Country Communion last year (and a follow-up release due later this year). For those like me who love the blues, this is a must.

The old tunes came in the form of Blondie's classic 'Parallel Lines' from 1978. What an outstanding recording! Every track is a gem, and although it may be a cliche to say 'all killer, no filler' that certainly applies to this album: every one is a classic. How have I missed this for so long?

Friday, 6 May 2011

A critical ward?

Yesterday's local elections have resulted in the Liberal Democrats losing control of Sheffield City Council to Labour. The ward in which I live, Broomhill, has as one of its councillors Coun Paul Scriven, now the former leader of the council. Within its boundaries are a large number of students from Sheffield University, and also a number of Sheffield's hospitals. What do last night's results reflect from this part of Sheffield?

The first thing I note is that turnout was down from 59% last year to 37.8% this year. A major factor in this, of course, may be that we also held a General election last year, which may have grabbed the popular imagination a little more than a referendum on AV. But are people also losing faith in the system that has not produced the promised change?

Secondly the change in voting shows that, here at least, the Lib Dems are bearing the brunt of discontentment and disillusionment over the Coalition's policy strategy. Lib Dem share of the vote fell by 19.4% to 27.2%, whereas the Tory share only fell by 1.7% to 10%. These votes were picked up by Labour, who increased by 12.1% to 34.6% and the Greens, who grew 8.8% to 26.1%. UKIP showed a slight increase, from 1.9% to 2.1%, but I think they can largely be ignored here. Are the Lib Dems becoming the 'whipping boys' of the coalition, diverting public anger away from Cameron and his party?

Sheffield is seen as Nick Clegg's 'heartland'. If that is so, it seems that some major surgery may be needed to prevent the terminal decline of a party that many hoped would bring radical change to British politics, but who instead have done nothing but disappoint their core constituency through the deceit and broken promises of their leader. I have no doubt that others in leadership in the party will say, as Paul Scriven did this morning, that this is only a 'temporary blip', but I believe that things are much worse. The new dawn that was promised only 12 months ago has so soon clouded over and the storms are brewing.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Voting on voting

I've been a voter since 1979, and at every election - national and local - I have exercised my democratic right and cast my ballot. So why am I so reluctant to do so today?

There are two ballots being taken here today: one to elect members of Sheffield City Council, and the other the referendum on the Alternative Vote system as a replacement for 'First Past The Post'. In both of these polls I am still wondering what to do.

The vote for a local councillor should be easy. We have some excellent councillors here in Sheffield, and the Broomhill ward in which I live has been well served by the incumbents. My natural inclination is to continue to support them, and based on their local record I should. If it were simply a matter of local issues, and competence at the job, my vote would be secure.

But politics isn't as simple as that. Our councillors are Lib Dems, a party I have supported at every election (either them or their forebears), but their role in the coalition government, and particularly a) giving the country a Tory PM and b) Clegg's blatant lies about student funding have caused me to question whether I can support the party this time. I have always advocated local elections being fought on local issues, and not treating them as a 'referendum' on the national government, but I am savvy enough to know that that's not how they are perceived. My head says one thing, but my heart says another.

The AV referendum causes me equal concern. I have always thought that the FPTP system was unfair in many respect, and that an alternative was needed. But the AV system proposed doesn't seem to me to be the right alternative. I want change, but not this change: so how do I vote? Do I vote for AV in the hope that, if the system is changed it can be changed again at a later date to a fairer PR system, or do I vote against AV, and hope that there will be a further chance to change the system? The risk is that if AV is defeated that will be taken as a mandate to keep tings as they are, rather than look for a better alternative to the present unfair system we have.

I don't think I will know how to vote until I get to the Polling Station. But I will go, and I hope everyone who can go will go. We have a right to determine our future that many in the world are denied: that's democracy. But democracy also gives us a duty to live with decisions with which we may not agree - I think I may well have to do that after today.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Sanctity & Celebrity... and bin-Laden

I spent my morning walk today catching up with the BBC's 'Sunday' programme, which this week reflected on the imminent beatification of the late Pope John Paul II - imminent when the programme was broadcast, but now a fait accompli.

There was, I have to say, much about this event that concerned me. The whole idea of officially sanctioned holiness is one that irritates me greatly and which I struggle to justify theologically. Being a saint (of which this beatification is a step) is not the privilege of a few but the calling of the whole church, reflecting the holiness of God through openness to the Holy Spirit. It is God who 'makes you a saint', not the church.

Yes, there are those who walk the way of Christ who inspire others in their journey: I have a number of people in my life without whom I would not be the person I am, the Christian I am, and the minister I am. But they do not need the official sanction of the church to be 'saints'.

The speed with which Fr Wojtyla has attained 'Blessedness' is almost unprecedented, and his elevation to 'full sainthood' will probably not be long in coming. Indeed the public clamour in some circles for this has been evident since shortly after his death. This may be due to his being a very high-profile Pontiff, in that he travelled over 3/4 million miles during his papacy, and as such fitted very neatly into the burgeoning 'celebrity culture' of today's world. How much is that 'celebrity' status influencing his elevation, I wonder? How much is the cult of the saints about holy celebrity? There are, after all, various lists of saints: those who have 'feasts', those who have 'commemorations'; the 'A-list' of apostles and archangels, the 'C-list' of the 'Blessed', and the 'E-list' of 'those whose faith is known to God alone'.

I have no doubt that John Paul was a good Pope, maybe even (as some are dubbing him) a 'Great' one. He did much to raise the profile of the Catholic Church during his papacy; he worked tirelessly to inspire his native Poles, and others in Eastern Europe, to throw off the yoke of Communism; he committed himself to Evangelisation, and no doubt helped to lead many to faith or to a deeper faith. But he also presided over the huge systematic cover-up of child abuse by some members of the Catholic clergy, steadfastly refused to change his (and the church's) stance on women's ministry, abortion and contraception, and became increasingly authoritarian and controlling towards the end of his life. He was, at the end of the day, a human being like you or I - and a fallible one at that. But by the grace of God - and only by that grace - he was also one of the 'hagioi', the holy ones.

As I sat down to write this, news began to break of the death of Osama bin-Laden in Pakistan. Over the last 10 years or so, he has become the celebrity villain par excellence, and there can be no greater contrast in the public imagination than the events of these last two days. Understandably there will be great rejoicing among the American people at this news, and probably elsewhere in the world too, and maybe even a sense of closure from the events of September 11 2001. But one wonders whether 'justice' has truly been served by his death. What I am reasonably sure of is that bin-Laden will now face The Judge, to whom we all will answer, and that, ultimately, is the verdict that matters.