Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cordelia Williams Vingt Regards at Kings London

Cordelia after her recital
Yesterday to Kings College London for the lunchtime recital which had Cordelia Williams performing 5 of the Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jesus as part of her brilliant Messaien2015 project.

This is a simply extraordinary composition: the entire sequence lasts about 2h15m which makes it probably the longest piano composition in the serious repetory.

The selection we had was:
  • Regard du Père
  • Regard de la Vierge
  • Regard du silence
  • Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages
  • Regard des Anges
  • Regard de l'Esprit de joie 
 Annoyingly I've lost the short programme notes that Cordlia provided which included descriptions from Messiaen of the movements. I recall the enormous trombones of the Angels as they learn with astonishment that God had chosen to unite himself, not with them, but with humans. In a very insightful talk before the performance she pointed out that there were (real) terrifying angels, not the prettified ones of Victoriana. She also spoke of the paradox of a movement representing silence and of the complex framing of the Shepherds and the Magi by the prophets.

However, excellent though her talk was, it was mightily surpassed by the brilliance of the performance. It was utterly transporting and the only feasible reactions at many points were to shut one's eyes and listen in an almost trance-like state. Words pretty much fail me.

I wish that I had time to stay for the rest of the study day. And I would love to hear her give a complete performance - though even she might just struggle to commit the whole 2hrs15 to memory??

She is doing a selection in London, Cheltenham and Wiltshire later in the year. Catch it if you can!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good Shepherd - a sermon; and another Priscilla

The Good Shepherd from the
Catacomb of Priscilla (see Note below)
Wonderfully encouraging 0830 service in Church today. I think it was a record attendance of about 50 - a year ago it was 10-20 (and of course there are 2 other much bigger services later in the day.  I was preaching and FWIW here are the texts and my talk:

Acts 4.5-12 NIV
The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem.  Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is 'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation  in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

John 10:11-18 NIV with corrections in purple

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me because I lay down my life—that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Lord open our hearts and minds to your love. Bless anything I say that is true, and correct my errors in the minds of these kind hearers, through your Holy Spirit. Amen

Horace Rumpole, doughty and shambolic barrister was a great comic creation of John Mortimer.  Once Rumpole was about to defend a case and he turned to the prosecuting counsel and said:
“I don’t know if you’ve appeared before this judge before. He’s mean, deaf, vindictive, unjust and quite the nastiest little judge you’ve ever come across”
“Mr Rumpole” said the Judge, “I’ll have you know that the acoustics in this court are excellent and I can hear every word that is said on Counsel’s benches”
Rumpole turned to his colleague: “See what I mean”
But compared to Peter, Rumpole was being meek and mild.
Peter and John had healed a lame beggar in the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth by the Temple Gate and then preached an inflammatory sermon to the assembled crowd. They were arrested and the following day brought before the authorities who they had publicly accused of delivering up and denying before Pilate. Far from being chastened, they could hardly be bolder

As everybody in the court knows, Peter is quoting from Psalm 118. It begins harmlessly enough:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;     his love endures forever.
But listen to this (v6-10)
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.     What can mere mortals do to me?
The Lord is with me; he is my helper.     I look in triumph on my enemies.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord     than to trust in humans.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord     than to trust in rulers.
All the heathens surrounded me,     but in the name of the Lord I cut them down.
Later on (v14-17):
The Lord is my strength and my defense;     he has become my salvation.
Shouts of joy and victory     resound in the tents of the righteous:
“The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!
The Lord’s right hand is lifted high;     the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”
I will not die but live,     and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
And now (V 20)
This is the gate of the Lord    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;     you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected     has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,     and it is marvellous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;     let us rejoice today and be glad.
Lord, save us!     Lord, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (remember Jesus' triumphal entry)  From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,     and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession (triumphal entry again) up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;     you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;     his love endures forever.
When they saw the boldness of Peter and John (St Luke tells us) and realized that they were unlettered, ordinary men (the Greek word is idiwtai), they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “If it is right in God’s eyes to listen to you, or to him, you must judge! As for us, we cannot but speak about what we have seen and heard.”

Telling the judges that they must judge – boldness certainly.

Peter ran away once, like the hired hand Jesus speaks about. But now he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and like his Master will lay down his life for his sheep. God has kept his promises, the new creation has begun and just as in the first creation (as the prologue to John tells us) “without him was not anything made that was made” so in the new creation: without him will not anything be saved that is saved. Everyone and everything that is created is created through Jesus, whether they know it or not. Similarly everyone and everything that is saved is saved through Jesus.

Now there is some quite controversial material here and I don’t want to get drawn too far into the discussion about to what extent people need to know, during their earthly life, that they are being saved by Jesus.  We can’t read too much into the word “name” because in Jewish thought your name isn’t simply a set of characters that point to you – it’s much closer in this context to you unique identity.

We know that “Not everyone that says to Jesus ‘Lord Lord’ shall be saved” and we also know that for example Moses and Elijah are saved even though in their earthly lives they could not have called on Jesus by his name.  CS Lewis in The Last Battle has Aslan explain to a faithful servant of the supposed God Tash that “all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service to me … if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for his oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not… and if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves.”  This is of course similar to the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25.31-46) when the people who are judged are unaware that they are serving Jesus or not as the case may be.

I think we can be certain of four things:
  1. Jesus wants everyone to be saved. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me.” (John 12.32)
  2. Everyone who is saved is saved by Jesus but some people who are saved do not know that it is Jesus who is saving them during their earthly life (Mt 25.31-46)
  3. Salvation is not compulsory and the loss of “eternal life” is an infinite loss.  Whatever the risk may be, whether it’s 10%, 1% or 99%, a risk of an infinite loss is infinitely bad. Jesus talks about this risk as like being thrown on the rubbish dump “where the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48), about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13.42, Lk 13.28), about “being burned in the fire” (Jn 15.6).
  4. God is not incompetent and He is ultimately in control, but He has called us to be his witnesses and his co-workers (1 Cor 3.9 2 Cor 6.1) and to bear fruit (Luke 8:11-15; Matt. 13:18-23). We have to be sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Sprit but in the end we have an awesome privilege and responsibility to help bring people to faith and sustain them in faith.  We cannot but speak about what we have heard and seen.
* * *
Note: I'm excited to learn of the Catacombs of Priscilla which, it seems, contains the oldest surviving image of the Good Shepherd. She seems to have the wife of the Consul Acillus (AD 80) who became a Christian and was killed on the orders of Domitian (probably in the last years of his reign which ended in 96AD). It seems to me quite probable that she took the name Priscilla in honour of Priscilla the wife of Aquilla who (St Luke tells us) were Jews expelled from Rome on the orders of Claudius (reigned 41-54). Paul seems to have come to Corinth in AD 50 so if, as I strongly suspect, Priscilla wrote Hebrews it would have been some time around 55-65 AD. At least the elite Roman Christians would have known who wrote it, even if it was not recorded in the documents for prudent reasons given the upcoming persecutions.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Shenyang and UK free speech

From hotel room in Shenyang
Back from intense and fascinating trip to Beijing and Shenyang. Once more I had the pleasure and privilege of singing in the South Cathedral English Choir and experiencing at first hand the enthusiasm and optimism of Chinese Christians.

I was on this occasion the only Westerner in the Choir and the only Tenor apart from the conductor so it was just as well I was there since we had Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus as well as Schubert's Holy Holy Holy is the Lord.

Like most people in business I am seriously concerned about the economic effects of a possible Miliband government. I also worry that a Miliband government propped up by the SNP would lead to the SNP calling and winning a referendum in 2017 to break up the UK. Now in addition we learn that Miliband pledges to make "Islamophobia" a criminal offence. Since whenever anyone criticises Islam or the actions of individual Muslims they are accused of "Islamophobia" this would be seriously chilling of free speech, especially since his putative Justice Secretary is a Muslim.  The Charlie Hebdo journalists would presumably be jailed under such a regime

PS as a perfect illustration, a Labour NEC member called Christine Shawcroft claimed that Lutfur Rahman, who was convicted of electoral fraud in a damning court judgement, was a victim of "Islamophobia". If she had her way the courageous individuals who brought the case against him would be jailed, as would the judge.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Key Changes in Global Religion by 2050

Fig 1 from Harvey et al sketching how they estimated
the position and trajectory of the Dark Matter.
I wanted to blog two fascinating Science articles:
  •  Harvey et al. "The nongravitational interactions of dark matter in colliding galaxy clusters" which observed 72 galaxy cluster collisions to compare the resulting centres of mass for the gas and stars (from direct observations) and for the dark matter (by inference). Based on these offsets, dark matter is clearly present and some models of dark matter can be excluded.
  • Borsanyi et al. "Ab initio calculation of the neutron-proton mass difference" which calculates this (0.14%) from the fine-structure constant, thus reveals one aspect of how finely tuned our universe needs to be: if the mass difference were bigger or smaller, the world as we know it would probably not exist.
However the Templeton Foundation sent me an email about the research they have commissioned on projected Key Changes in Global Religion by 2050 and it makes somewhat depressing reading. According to the Pew Forum, if present trends continue, the number of Muslims in the world would overtake the number of Christians by about 2060. But that's not the part that causes me most concern, it is the projection that over 100M Christians will fall away from their faith, compared to only 40M coming to faith anew.

There are of course many important caveats. They don't have information about religious switching in China and there are reports of strong growth in Christianity in that great country. China has the majority of religiously un-affiliated people in the world so this would make a big difference. They assume that current patterns of falling away from faith will continue in the US and UK and other such places, and they do not allow for the possibility that people who fall away in their late teens and 20s may return later (as they are married with children for example). They also assume that almost no-one switches out from Islam based on extrapolating current trends where you can be murdered for doing so in many Muslim countries.  This is, in another sense, indeed a dark matter.

But all of this really emphasises that, alongside a focus on evangelising the non-believer there needs to be a steady work on building up and confirming the faith of the believer. Our prayers and work need to be focused on both of these vital priorities in the UK.  And we need to continue to pray for the growth of Christianity in China which will immeasurably strengthen that great country and the world as a whole.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Inspiring Easter in Cornwall

10 minutes before the Easter Service
Back from a delightful Easter break at our family house in Cornwall. My mother was also joined by my nephew (her grandson) and his wife and two children.

The weather was good on Saturday and glorious from Sunday to Tuesday.

Highlight was undoubtedly the Easter Sunday service. We had been for the Good Friday Mediations which were excellent - St John Passion and readings from Ann Lewin.
Particularly striking were two lines from her poem about Simon of Cyrene:
I felt compelled to go not just a mile
But on an endless journey into life.
The extra chairs were set up at the end of each pew and I remembered from last year that it would be pretty full. We aimed to get there 15 minutes early and only arrived 10 minutes early, by which time we could only get seats half way down the back. By the start of the service almost every extra chair was full, and by the middle about 25 of us were standing.  It was enormously inspiring - the Rector (Julia Wilkinson) was buoyed up on a wave of happiness and goodwill. She was also very encouraged by the appointment of a woman Diocesan Bishop.

Not only were the days beautiful, the sunsets were exceptional - here is just one picture.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Cordelia Williams and Jeremy Begbie in Visions d'Amen

To Kings Chapel last night for a simply amazing performance of Messaien's Visions d'Amen by Cordelia Williams and Jeremy Begbie, which was part of the Easter at Kings festival and also Cordelia's wonderful Messaien 2015 project.

As an added bonus there was a wonderful talk by Rowan Williams beforehand. He said that Amen is both something we say to God and something God says to himself: not only the "Amen Amen" of Jesus but Paul says that Christ is an Amen to God.  He also noted that in this deeply theological piece, written in 1943 in occupied Paris, one voice will often leave the other to be itself in the way that love respects the autonomy of the other. To summarise a few of he points he made about the seven movements:
  1. The bell like sound of creation is a primal unity which is then refracted in Creation.
  2. The cosmos continues its own internal dialogue. Distance is also risk.
  3. The Amen of Jesus' agony. Only in the darkness of Jesus' self-emptying can the new creation begin. The trochee beat is both A-men and Ab-ba.
  4. The Amen of desire.
  5. The Amen of the Angels and Saint + birdsong. George Herbert once said he wanted to be a tree because a tree can worship God by being a tree, whereas humans have to work at it.
  6. The Amen of  Judgement. This contains the sound of things breaking up against the unity of God.
  7. The Amen of Consummation. This doesn't mean that everything is reduced and swallowed back into God, but the vision is that in God the new creation finds its own true life and destiny.
The performances were scintillating and revelatory: full of energy, grace, sensitivity and profundity fit for the astonishing music. The pianos were positioned as they had apparently been on the first performance: so that the stools were in line with the pianos pointing in opposite directions: the performers could communicate but there was the maximal stereo effect. Altogether wonderful and well worth the standing ovation.