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An Iona-ish weekend!

Posted on April 29th, 2012

This weekend has been AMAZING!  So amazing that I just have to tell you all about it!

On Friday night I attended a ‘Big Sing’ with John Bell from the Iona Community and his colleague Christine.  It was an incredible experience to see someone teach three- and four-part harmony to a group of people with a mixed experience of singing, usually unaccompanied by any instruments!  John inspired everyone with the confidence to sing despite their reservations and the beautiful church of St. John’s at Studley was filled with divine music all night long!

Saturday was a day of workshops with John.  The morning was titled ‘Why do God’s people sing?’ and the afternoon was looking at the Bible.  It was a really interesting day – taking me back to my first year of theology at university in the afternoon – and I met some really lovely people!  Christine and I had been speaking the night before, and I gave her some music to take away, and I was touched by how grateful she was.  I’ll come back to this day in a moment.

Then today was a Communion service at St. John’s, with the sermon preached by John.  He was speaking about Psalm 23 and had some really interesting points to make about the nature of God as shown through the Psalm.  I shan’t steal his thunder and put them down here, but it was a great sermon!

So, what does all this have to do with anything?  One of my favourite sayings is ‘Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous’ and I could see at lot of this happening this weekend.

Firstly, I had found out about this weekend purely by chance.  Or ‘chance’!  I was having a look at a church’s website while searching for my next concert venue and thought that the poster looked interesting, so I signed up to Saturday’s workshops.  Then I was asked if I wanted to go to the Big Sing, too, which of course I did!  So that was all a bit coincidental.

Then I moved house on 10th April and was sitting around feeling a bit blue about the move and started to look on the internet for things going on in the local area.  When I had a look at the Salisbury Diocese website I found a course to get a certificate in church music.  I started to get excited and wrote to the contact to find out how much it cost etc.  Turns out it was free!  Superb!  So I enrolled and picked my modules…one of which is called ‘Why do we sing?’  Reading list: John Bell.  Fantastic work, God!

And so then I was trying to decide where to go to church now I’ve moved house.  I think it’s always good to shop around a bit, to find out what suits you, so I was going to be doing that.  However, I feel a bit like I’ve been taken to my new church home.  The people at St. John’s this weekend have been so welcoming and friendly, and I was really enjoying getting to know them.  One couple in particular really took care of me and made sure I wasn’t left on my own for too long, introduced me to different people…really special.  Turns out I’m now going to the church’s barn dance next Saturday night and I fully intend to be there on Sunday morning, too!  Not dancing…

So all really good so far!  Now the next fantastic piece of work by the big old G-O-D would have to be the Taizé.  I love Taizé as anyone who’s met me knows!  So when someone said that the curate at St. John’s was trying to develop the music of the church, I thought I’d offer it up as a suggestion, either as a once-off workshop or as a regular thing.  Oh yes, they’ve been after a regular Taizé service for some time and hadn’t quite managed to get it sorted.  Thank you again, Lord!!

Add to all of this three members of the church with whom I have mutual friends, a lovely church building and an incredibly positive experience all round, I am feeling very loved and cared for.  What a wonderful God we have!!!

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Can you prove God’s existence?

Posted on April 21st, 2012

Today is the day of St. Anselm according to the calendar of both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.  Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, Anselm is perhaps most famous for proposing the ontological argument:  if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality, so therefore God must be real.

I can remember sitting through lessons at school, completely baffled by the idea that you could argue for the existence of God.  I used to sit through lessons thinking ‘surely you believe in God or you don’t, and that’s all there is to it!’  Perhaps I was naïve, but if so then I think I still am!  If it were possible to prove God’s existence through reason and logic then there would be no need for faith, and surely faith is the foundation of belief in God?  Anselm did say that he couldn’t have knowledge unless he first believed:

He wrote, “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam. ” (“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”) – thank you Wikipedia!

But I think it’s an interesting idea – trying to prove God’s existence.  By trying to do so, it seems to me to be an affirmation of faith and a desire to share faith with others.  Although it’s just not my cup of tea!

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Why do we sing?

Posted on April 19th, 2012

This evening I went to the first rehearsal for the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Festival.  I’ve never taken part before, but I’m excited about joining together with (potentially) 300 people to sing in Salisbury Cathedral, Sherborne Abbey and All Saints in Westbury!

I love singing and always have, and I am well aware that the majority of people I meet would agree that they at least like it.  But WHY?  What is it about singing which makes us enjoy it?  There is enough biblical evidence to say that it’s a good way to praise God and I could do on for hours about why it’s used in worship, but it doesn’t answer the question.

To help with this musing here is a quote from Josie Long about music in the Orthodox Church (which is usually chanting and quite dissimilar from other church music):

In his work, Byzantine Sacred Music, Constantine Cavarnos states: “The aim of this music is not to display the fine voices of the chanters, or to entertain the congregation, or to evoke aesthetic experience…The aim of Byzantine sacred music is spiritual. This music is, in the first place, a means of worship and veneration; and in the second place, a means of self-perfection, of eliciting and cultivating man’s higher thoughts and feelings of opposing and eliminating his lower, undesirable ones.

“Its use as a means of worship consists in employing it to glorify God, and to express feelings of supplication, hope, and gratitude, and love to Him. Its use as a means of veneration consists in employing it to honour the Holy Virgin and the rest of the Saints. Its use as a means of cultivating higher thoughts and feelings and opposing the lower ones is inseparable from these. There is not one kind of music employed as a means of worshipping God and honoring the saints, and another kind employed for transforming our inner life, but the same music, while having as its direct aim the former, incidentally leads also to the fulfillment of the latter.”

I like the focus on God here, and I wonder if that’s what we enjoy about music?  Not only does it make a beautiful sound that is pleasing to the ear, but it also allows us to really BE with something that is beyond our worries and concerns, our distractions and our thoughts.  We can engage with singing (or with music in general) in such a way as we just exist for a little while.  We become what we are – human beings – rather than what we often seem to be – human doings!  Here is another beautiful quote which really struck me on this, this time from the Catholic Church:

“To sing with the universe means, then, to follow the track of the Logos and to come close to Him. All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator.” – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

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The Light of Life

Posted on April 12th, 2012

‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.’
Sir Thomas Browne

What is it that drives people to seek God?  Is it the soul, this part of us which makes us ‘in God’s image’ and which is drawn like a magnet back to the Creator?  Is it that we are aware of the darkness around us, through which the light of God is seen?

If this is true, that God is inside each of us (as God is inside everything!), then it is hardly surprising that people are drawn back to faith throughout their lives.  In my experience, even people who leave organised religion will often find comfort in some sort of spirituality at some point in their life.  I can remember reading a book of letters by Evelyn Underhill for my degree which included one to a young teacher.  She said to this teacher something along the lines of: the girls cannot understand what it is you teach them at 14, but at some point in their life, some catastrophe will strike them and they will remember everything you have taught them about God.  I hope that’s right and I haven’t just made it up!  But it really struck me because it’s true that people fall back on God when times are hard.

It’s a strange paradox – going to God when you are struggling, when that God went through some of the worst suffering we can imagine!  Try holding your arms up as high as your shoulders. See how long you can hold them there for until they hurt or until they start to fall slightly.  I bet it’s less than 5 minutes.  Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours like that, with nails driven through his flesh; having been tortured, spat at, shouted at and accused; having not eaten or drunk since the night before…but it’s because of this suffering that we know God understands us.

I agree with this quote by Sir Thomas Browne – life is a flame and we do live by the light of something we cannot see.  But remember: fire can light, heat and cook but it can also burn and destroy.  It is how you use it and how carefully you treat it that matters.

So how will you look after the flame of your life?

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Stay with me, remain here with me: watch and pray.

Posted on April 5th, 2012

One thing which I find really beautiful about Holy Week is that we can spend time imagining ourselves there with Jesus, because we know most of what he was doing during this time.  To be given an opportunity to imagine ourselves walking with Jesus through the Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion and the resurrection is so special.  To be given the instruction, ‘stay here and pray’ is an instruction which we can still be given today.  To pray not to be tempted is still a prayer we can pray today.  To struggle to be spiritually strong as we are bound by our physical bodies is still something we can do.  I can so easily imagine myself there with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane tonight.

Jesus is God incarnate…and yet Jesus prayed to God.  When speaking about prayer he said, ‘And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’  So what is the purpose of prayer?  I would say that prayer is a way for people to quieten themselves by focusing on God, and a way to develop their relationship with God.  I believe that prayer is a way for us to come humbly to God, who knows all of our weaknesses and to admit to our limitations, our fears or our desires.  It is a way for us to be honest with God and for us to listen to the voice of God.

And so tonight we watch and pray, not shying away from the pain that Jesus was about to endure at this point in his final year, but making ourselves vulnerable in his sight just as he made himself vulnerable for us.


A prayer for Holy Week

Posted on April 3rd, 2012

Heavenly Father; as we move towards the crucifixion and the sacrifice of your Son on the cross this week, help us to remember you in our hearts and minds.  Help us to make the sacrifices necessary in our own lives, secure in the knowledge that the ultimate sacrifice has ensured our salvation.  Be with us as we make our commitment to live our lives in the spirit of the cross.  Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Last night I went to a beautiful Taizé service at St. Mary’s in Limpley Stoke (near Bath).  It was very special, especially as I was with a group of people who sang in full four-part harmony for each song.  It makes the experience so much more reminiscent of being in Taizé that I was truly moved.

During the prayers of intercession and the silence in which we could add our own prayer, I reflected on the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  The prayer above came to me, which was a real blessing.  I am going to be moving house in a week, to live with my dad after 3 years of living alone and I have been really struggling with the prospect.  I know that it is the right thing to do at this moment in time, but that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier!  But after this reflection on sacrifice and having said this prayer, I felt a sense of peace around the situation.

It really is amazing how prayer is answered in ways we don’t expect, and in every aspect of life.  It’s not just the big things which need prayer and which God pays attention to – it’s everything.  If you are open, I truly believe that God will be with you in ever moment of your life, even if you don’t realise He’s there.

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Meditations on Palm Sunday

Posted on April 1st, 2012

Alleluia, how the people cheer
And palm leaves rustle as the king draws near.
~ John Beavis

Entering Holy Week is an experience which is different for each person.  I can remember being at a Taizé service during Lent some 8 or 9 years ago and asking a visiting monk if he enjoyed the service.  His response was that he could not enjoy anything during Lent, which at the time I thought was really peculiar – surely the salvation that comes from Easter is something to rejoice?  I now understand much better where he is coming from, having spent time meditating on the different meanings to be found in the events leading up the resurrection.  But if there is one day which really is about rejoicing, then that day must be today!

Picture this: a man arrives in a city riding a donkey.  He is surrounded by his closest friends and followers, and there are crowds packing the streets to welcome him.  He has achieved celebrity status and everyone is keen to get a look at him – those wanting healing, those to worship, those who want a revolution and those who are just curious.  They lay both their cloaks and palm leaves on the ground to welcome the King just as they are commanded:

And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. – Leviticus 23:40

 And the streets echo with praise for the One they are all waiting for, whom they receive with joy and love.

There are different traditions surrounding the marking of Palm Sunday as with all Christian festivals and holy days.  One, from the Orthodox Church, focuses on welcoming Christ into our lives on Palm Sunday, reminding its followers of the nearness of God.  I really like this idea!  Bringing the meaning of Palm Sunday into our own lives is simple in many ways:

When Christ entered into Jerusalem the people spread garments in the way: when He enters into our hearts, we pull off our own righteousness, and not only lay it under Christ’s feet but even trample upon it ourselves. – Augustus Toplady

Throughout the year we have opportunities to reflect on aspects of the Gospel, giving us the chance to try again and again to commit ourselves to God.  Perhaps Palm Sunday is a chance for us to welcome Christ again; perhaps it is a chance to reaffirm our faith; perhaps it is a calling to think about the strength of our commitment to God; perhaps it is a time to celebrate before the pain of the crucifixion.  However we use it, may it be a day of blessing for all!

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