Thursday, September 24, 2015

From Beijing to London

Back from a quick but pretty un-bloggable trip to Beijing. However I did get straight from the plane on Sunday to the South Cathedral - arriving in the middle of the sermon alas but at least in time to sing the Anthems where it was helpful to have a second Tenor.

Christians in Beijing, or at least my friends, appear in good heart. It's interesting that the Pope and President Xi Jinping are both in the US at present. It would be amazing if they met but I fear not on this occasion.

Great views of London as we came in - and I had to go straight to a dinner.

The realignment around China and of China is probably the major fact of the first part of the 21st Century. We shall see what happens.

Friday, September 18, 2015

LSO and Elim Chan at the Barbican

To an excellent concert on Weds at the Barbican with the LSO and some Chinese musicians, in the presence of Vice-Premier Liu Yandon.

When Elim Chan the young conductor walked on and shook hands with the LSO Leader Roman Simovic who seemed about 2 feet taller than her you began to wonder how she would fare, but she was amazing! They began with an excellent rendition of the Elgar Overture: Cockaigne done with vim and real musicality. It was clear why she was the winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition and it was a great treat. That piece is not easy to play to make it really interesting.

The Yellow River Piano Concerto followed (soloist Haochen Zhang, who I heard at the Proms last year) which was played very well but sounded very much like a piece composed by a collective during the Cultural Revolution, which it was. There was then an excerpt from The Red Lantern done by rising stars from Beijing and a piece for Jinghu with orchestra and some other traditional Chinese instruments, played by Shouping Yan and a female colleague (uncredited) in unison.

Then Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes - again a masterly display of musicianship from Elim Chan and the LSO. These are much deeper pieces than Cockaigne and were beautifully articulated. After tumultuous applause and 3 curtain calls she came back to the podium and with her bare hands conducted a wonderful Nimrod from Enigma Variations which could not have been played or conducted better! Stunned silence and then rapt applause.  The final encore which I didn't know was more of a crowd pleaser, and had the audience clapping along at one point.

Elim Chan is clearly a considerable talent, with a great feeling for English music. Maybe she should do the Last Night of the Proms?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: Who do you say that I am?

Jesus with disciples - courtesy
 Sermon Mark 8.27-end
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say that* I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
Then he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’

In 1897 a 22-year old beginning a career as a writer realised he had quite a serious problem: he shared a name with a famous American novelist. So he wrote this letter:
Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt … that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel… which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published... He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter—if indeed by no other means—that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,… He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice …, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention
Of course the other Winston Churchill is now only known because of his namesake, but in 1897 the balance of fame was very much the way around.

Similarly, if we are to make sense of this passage in the Gospels, and indeed many other passages with a related theme, we have to remember that when few people had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, everybody had heard of The Anointed One – in Hebrew  Ha Messiah, in Greek to kristos. He was going to be a divinely appointed leader, descended from David, who would usher in the Age to Come where the enemies of God’s people will be destroyed. First century Palestine was awash with messianic expectation. The Temple had been rebuilt – which was wonderful – but the Romans were occupying the Holy Land. And these Romans were not only terribly effective and cruel warriors, they were terrible blasphemers.  The late Emperor Augustus had been declared a God and Emperor Tiberius, as his adopted son was officially titled “Son of the God Augustus.”  His image and superscription were on the Roman coins - which is why they could not be used in the Temple.   It is obvious to every Jew in Palestine that the Messiah, when he comes, will kick the Romans out.

The Romans reacted with customary efficiency and brutality to such attempts at rebellion. Around 6AD  there was an rebellion by Judas of Galilee which was crushed brutally, and about 2,000 of the rebels were crucified. His followers, the Zealots, continued to make trouble. Eventually in AD70 the Romans destroyed the temple and there were two more big rebellions afterwards including under Simon bar Kokhba who was hailed as the Messiah by the great Rabbi Akiva. . Jesus knew very well that if people heard that he was the Messiah everyone would assume he was that kind of divine leader. There had already been at least one dangerous misunderstanding: when 5,000 men flocked to Jesus in the wilderness and he fed them so John tells us that “Jesus knew they were about to come an seize him and make him king, so he withdrew “ (Jn 6:15). That was more of less the size of a Roman Legion at the time, and there were only 1-2 legions in the whole region.

If you follow a failed Messiah the Romans will defeat you, and force you to carry your cross to a place of crucifixion where you will die as an example to others. But Jesus calls the crowds with his disciples to him and says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”. The followers of a failed Messiah are forced by the Romans to “take up their cross” – yet Jesus tells his followers to do so from the very beginning. What are they to make of that?  What are we to make of that?

There is so much to explore here, but let me just touch on three points:
  1. To follow Jesus we are called to share in his sufferings. Jesus is not a warlord spreading his creed by military conquest. In the world we will have tribulations. Those of us who grew up in the 20th Century in England had the idea that, as Christians, the authorities are basically on your side. We were free to practice Christianity “without let or hindrance”.  But that was a pretty abnormal period in a pretty abnormal country. In the 19th Century Catholics faced significant legal discrimination in the UK. And in the 21st Century public advocacy of what until recently were considered completely mainstream Christian beliefs can get you into serious legal trouble, arrested or lose your job. We cannot assume, even in the UK, that the authorities are on our side. Only one of the candidates to be the next PM is not an atheist.

    And of course our brothers and sisters in many other countries face varying degrees of persecution. We have to listen to Jesus: “in the world you will have tributation”  Though he does add “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
  2. Who do you say that I am?  This is the question that confronts us all. It is even more important than “to be, or not to be.” Because if Jesus is who he claims to be, and if the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is who he claims to be, then (as Hamlet points out) “not to be” isn’t really an option the way atheists suppose.  One Christian philosopher described a deceased colleague as a “former atheist” on the grounds that if his late colleague was right, he would be no more, and if he was wrong he would be ... better informed.  The great biologist Theodosus Dobzhansky famously wrote “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. But at a deeper level, nothing in the universe really makes sense except in the light of Christ.

    Which brings me to my final point.
  3. Jesus asks who do you say that I am?  Not just “who do you think that I am”  We are called, not just to have an opinion about Jesus, but to follow him and to speak about him.  To speak is  not, of course, a substitute for living our lives as his followers. And not all are called to be Evangelists with a capital E. But we are each called, as St Peter says, “to give an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). And we must not “be ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation”
So let us be clear. We must expect persecution and suffering. We can all expect death in one form or another. But if we are clear about who Jesus is, and follow him “not only with our lips, but in our lives” then we have the sure and certain hope that our lives will be saved in everlasting loving union with our Lord and our God.

Who do you say that I am?

* The points in blue are where I diverge from the NIV (but obviously stay with the original Greek)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Wonderful Gerontius at the Proms

To the Proms last night to hear our friend Toby Spence sing Gerontius.This was a completely phenomenal performance! In addition to Toby they had The Vienna Philharmonic and Simon Rattle (I think may have been the first time the Vienna Phil had performed this work in public) and a superb massed choir called the "BBC Proms Youth Choir" which is about 600 young singers drawn from the CBSO Youth Chorus, the Halle Youth Choir, Quay Voices, The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the Ulster Youth Choir and the University of Birmingham Voices. The other two soloists were Magdalena Kozena and Roderick Williams.

Tickets were sold out ages ago so we Prommed it, arriving 2h15m before the concert to be reasonably sure of a seat. I feared it might be 50:50 whether we got in but in the end people who arrived an hour later got in as well.

Rattle began amazingly slowly, really milking the astonishing sound of the Vienna Phil. This is of course mainly due to the players, but it helps that they have 4 Strads for the Violins and 1 for the Cellos, and they also have some distinctive instruments including the Vienna Horn.

Toby was wonderfully convincing as the dying - and then dead - Gerontius. His brush with mortality when he nearly lost his voice due to cancer, and would very probably have died if he hadn't been a singer and thus noticed tiny changes in his larynx. The choir, as noted, was simply superb - responding wonderfully to Rattles direction so that their pianissimos allowed the soloists to be heard clearly. Roderick Williams was also enormously impressive. 

I was in floods of tears several times.  We went to see Toby afterwards and he asked "did you enjoy it?" "No!" I replied firmly, "I did not 'enjoy' it. I found it overwhelming. Congratulations, it was wonderful!"

I really doubt whether there has ever been a finer performance - though if only the great Catherine Wyn-Rogers had been the Angel!  Do catch it on i-Player.

Meanwhile Toby has a recital at the Barbican on Oct 26th and then is starring in Fledermaus at the Met with Levine. Well worth getting to!

Fittingly and very encouragingly, it was also the day the Commons decisively rejected the "Assisted Dying" Bill. Hopefully the large majority will convince these people not to keep trying to turn doctors into accomplices to murder.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Paris and Responsible Investment

 Elder Daughter and US Grandchildren left for the US on  Sun and I had to fly to Paris for a conference. Sadly there was no time to enjoy this amazing city because it was solid work. The Conference Hotel was just opposite the Opera so there were some pretty decent views from the room. Don Giovanni was on but alas no time to see it.

There were a number of excellent speakers at the conference: the business ones I regard as un-bloggable but we had two former PMs, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Gordon Brown whom I hadn't met before. I was able to thank Gordon Brown personally for his vital role in helping to win the Scottish Referendum.

Straight back to London on the first flight to go to one day of the UN PRI PRIinPerson conference. It was very inspiring to see so many people so committed to Responsible Investment - and also very good to go to a financial conference where there was a roughly even gender balance.

The Lord Mayor gave an excellent and evidently heartfelt speech about the importance of Responsible investment, pointing out that his first speech as Lord Mayor was on responsible behaviour in the financial sector.

Daughter has been offered a position with a major global asset manager in this very area - we are delighted. This is a really important and growing field.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Amazing time in Cornwall with Grandchildren

Back from amazing time in Cornwall with most of the grandchildren - sadly Elder Grandson had to go back before we arrived. Highlights included taking MJ (middle grand-daughter) sailing with Daughter in a Wayfarer in the Camel Estuary

"Are you enjoying this?"
"Yes - it's a bit scary - but fun!"

We built 3 Sandcastles, one combined with a Waterworks which survived 104 waves with MJ triumphantly riding it to the end.

MJ also helped me (a bit) translate two Psalms on the journey back.  Here is Psalm 53
The fool said in his heart there is no God.
They are corrupted, and they have performed
Abominable sins - no one does good.
The Lord from heaven looked on Adam's sons
To see if any understands, seeks God.
They're all together fallen and corrupt
There's no one who does good, not even one.
Have they no knowledge, those who sin, and eat
my people up like bread, not call on God?
They have become afraid with greater fear
Than fear has ever been. For God dispersed
Their very bones. And those encamped against
Were put to shame, for God rejected them.
O who will give from Zion saving help
To Israel? Ah when our God returns
Then shall His people's great return be had
Then Jacob will rejoice, Israel be glad.