The Penultimate Trump

 

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged (although not necessarily a biblical one) that whenever two or three clergy are gathered together, they shall tell funny funeral stories. Here is my favourite, and it really did happen.

I was taking a big British legion-type funeral at the crematorium, and as usual I had been briefed by the gang of old soldiers as to what I had to do. Just before the commendation they would line up with their colours, which they would then dip; a bugler would play the Last Post, the colours would be raised again, and I could proceed to the committal. What could possibly go wrong?

Then, just before the service was due to start, we received tragic news: the bugler had gone down with flu and wouldn’t be able to play. However, calamity was averted, as at the eleventh hour they had managed to get hold of a cassette (this was a few years ago) with a recording of the Last Post. This was given to the crem attendant, and the service proceeded smoothly, until we got to the end. The colours were dipped, and we waited in silence for the bugle to begin. We waited … and we waited … and waited … and waited … Finally I decided that enough was enough, indicated that the colours should be raised, and said the words of committal.

After the service the crem attendant came up to me with a very red face. ‘I’m sorry about the music!’ he said, with great and obviously genuine contrition.

‘What went wrong?’ I asked. ‘Did they give you a blank tape or something?’

‘No’ he confessed. ‘The tape was fine: I just piped it through to the wrong chapel.’

 

A couple of weeks later I was at our clergy chapter meeting, and true to form our Area Dean (the kind of leading priest in the area) began to tell a funny funeral story.

‘You’ll never guess what happened to me at the crem. I was just reading that passage from 1 Corinthians, about the trumpet sounding and the dead being raised, when out of nowhere this great trumpet began to play the Last Post!’

I had to own up.

 

 

Coming next week: a new feature on #fridayfun. Steve’s Random Icebreakers.

Run a Homegroup, Youth group or something? Fed up with the usual boring questions to get people going at the start of the evening? Then this selection of random icebreakers from my son’s ministry in Bournemouth might just give you some fresh inspiration. Look out for #stevesrandomicebreakers from next Friday.

 

Finding myself with a bit of time on my hands I’m happy to receive enquiries about speaking engagements, preaching, church weekends, conferences or whatever. Please get in touch via Twitter @revjohnleach

Quite a bit of what you need is love

The current TV ad for Macmillan Nurses tells us that ‘No-one should face cancer alone’. I can see what they mean, but as a strong introvert I find the idea of self-help groups, craft workshops and the like only marginally better than the prospect of cancer itself. However a very extravert friend is exactly the opposite, and struggles daily with the loneliness of illness. I guess it’s horses for courses. But in facing cancer myself I found to my great surprise just how much I needed the love of others. The love of my family, up close and personal, was obviously the greatest source of strength to me, but to receive loads of cards, good wishes and presents was both immensely cheering and mightily humbling too. During the most acute phase of my illness my family sent out regular e-mail and facebook updates, and I was flooded with likes, messages and good wishes. At one stage we tried to tot up the number of people and congregations who had said they were praying for us: we reckon there were literally thousands, from several different countries of the world. The first time I cried during the process wasn’t when I was initially diagnosed: it was when my son told me he’d received good wishes for me from a school friend, whom he hadn’t seen for 15 years, via the gift of facebook. Something about all this love told me that actually, in spite of what some people had been telling me for the last year, that I was loved, valued and wanted.

I would have told you that I’m a pretty self-sufficient kind of person, that 30 years of Christian ministry have given me both a thick skin and broad shoulders, and that whilst some people were basically quite nice I could manage fine without them. But during a period of the chips being severely down I realised the extent to which I’d been kidding myself. John Donne was right all along: I’m not an island. I do need love, and I’ve only recently come to appreciate how much. I might have told you, if it had occurred to me even to think about it, that should it come to it I could face cancer alone quite happily. Now I’m nowhere near as sure, and my heart goes out as never before to those who do have to face all kinds of tragedies without family or friends to love them through it.

This has made me ask in turn about people I know who are going through the mill, and how much of a support I am to them. If tragedy does not soften our hearts it really has failed to do its job. Of course in the early days we are pretty self-obsessed, with good cause, and we need simply to suck in the love that others offer us. But as things resolve, one way or the other, can we find room in our hearts for others who might be relying on our love more than we, or they, realise?

 

 

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Finding myself with a bit of time on my hands I’m happy to receive enquiries about speaking engagements, preaching, church weekends, conferences or whatever. Please get in touch via Twitter @revjohnleach

A Question of Balance

OK, I’m back from hols and ready to get blogging again. Where were we? This stuff called ‘liturgy’ which so few of us seem to understand or like is natural, essential, and can be beautiful. So what else? I want to suggest today that it can really help us to keep balanced in our worship. Let me explain.

What are we supposed to do when we come together to worship? Since the earliest times of the church, and before that in the Jewish Temple and Synagogue traditions, there has been some kind of an expectation about the sort of ingredients which ought to be there in order for our worship to be well-constituted. This became formalised in set liturgies of the kind against which C21 Christians have so often reacted, with some justification. But even now that the official Anglican line is to be much more flexible, there is much we can learn about keeping our worship balanced.

I can remember a comment made about an act of worship in the era of charismatic renewal. ‘We didn’t once look outside the four walls of the room’, said my critic, and I had to agree. I began to think about services I attended with this comment in mind, and I realised that for so many of the so-called ‘acts of worship’ we had not once confessed our sins, listened to God’s written word, interceded for the world around us, interacted in any way with each other, or even used the prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray. Instead we had sung songs about me and Jesus, and heard a ‘sermon’ which alluded vaguely to odd bits of scripture. Then we sung some more songs.

I want to suggest that a diet like this long term isn’t healthy for us. If our worship doesn’t remind us of our standing before God, and encourage us to deal with everything which gets in the way; if it doesn’t help us to listen deeply to and engage with Scripture; if it doesn’t help us to look around us to the world out there for which we are called to intercede, then it is failing in its task. And above all, if it doesn’t send us out to engage with society so that we help make the world a better place, why on earth are we doing it at all? Those of us who use SU Bible notes will have read Isaiah 61 this morning. The climax of the chapter is God’s desire to see righteousness and praise spring up together. We’re not bad in the church at doing one or the other, but that simply isn’t good enough.

Of course you don’t have to use words out of a book to do all the above: really creative worship planning can include all these elements using songs and spontaneous prayer (although sadly it rarely does, in my recent experience). But at the very least to think liturgically, to have in mind a checklist of the ingredients we ought to be putting into our worship mix, can be a very helpful thing in keeping our worship balanced. And who knows? The odd prayer for us all to join in together might prove a helpful thing.

As an ex-Baptist convert to Anglicanism the theology and mode of baptism has been for me, as you might imagine, an area where I have had to do a bit of work. It was my privilege to be baptised by total immersion, and although I have performed many Anglican ‘sprinklings’ I have held on to a suspicion that after all the Baptists have got it right. As one friend said to me ‘You Anglicans have got the symbolism all wrong: it isn’t about washing, it’s about drowning!’

In fact the Anglican church has just about caught up, and our latest liturgical texts try to get us to assume that ‘substantial quantities’ of water should be the norm for baptisms. I have performed several Anglican baptisms by total immersion, and have been grateful for Baptist colleagues who have been happy to lend us their buildings for these events. I guess it must have given them some small sense of satisfaction to see the Anglicans come begging and admitting they were right after all.

But another church in which I used to worship took a different approach. Rather than decamping elsewhere for its baptisms it used to hire a sheep dip from a friendly farmer, which was installed at the front of church and filled with water. It was a substantial vessel, easily capable of submerging the victim, and with plenty of room for those administering the baptism. On one occasion there was a … shall we say ‘rather large’ man to be dunked, so the vicar, fearing that having got him down he might not get him up again, invited the curate to help him administer the holy sacrament. As they all climbed in my son, who was on the drum kit at the front of church, suddenly saw the funny side, and texted his friend on the sound desk at the back the simple message ‘Rub-a-dub-dub’.

 

No blogs for a couple of week, I’m afraid. Normal service will be resumjed after that.

Consider it joy

One of the hardest and most cruel-sounding pieces of advice to those going through grim times is to ‘consider it joy’. I can remember when one of the worst times in my life coincided with Matt Redman’s song Blessed be your name. How I loathed that song! And how I loathed it being used as a weapon against me to try and make me feel guilty because I wanted to smash God’s divine teeth in rather than lifting my hands to him in grateful praise. Only later did I discover the tragic circumstances in which the song had been written, and its life-setting as anything but glib advice.

The Bible is full of stuff we’d much rather not hear on the subject of suffering, very little of which comes into the category of ‘You poor sausage!’. To be told, when your life is in pieces, that you ought to be rejoicing, can feel like being kicked where it hurts while you’re already down. Throughout my ministry I’ve tried hard to avoid such glib-sounding and patronising advice to people for whom I’m trying to care.

But as I’ve been going through the mill myself, I have gradually found that Bible passages like these, far from being the final straws which crush me, have become glorious promises of hope. I guess this might not be the kind of thing you’ll be able to hear easily from me, as I didn’t in the past hear it easily from others, but the greater the depth of my despair, the more important to me it has seemed that there might after all be some point to it all, that the Divine Potter is indeed moulding and shaping me through the pounding and pulling apart of who I am. As I seem to spin out of control, the idea that some skilled and loving hands are actually using the nauseating motion to shape who I am seems about the only hope I can muster.

Two passages have become important for me. James 1 invites us to ‘consider it pure joy’ when life kicks us in the teeth. If we survive not only will we learn perseverance, but we’ll also become ‘mature and complete’. I love the word ‘consider’, which means ‘treat it as though’. Of course suffering isn’t joyful, but to live through it as though it were is the path to maturity. I think I’m learning this by keeping one eye on the big picture, realising that in spite of his apparent absence God is actually at work for my ultimate good. That doesn’t make life any easier, but it does on a good day help to rob it of its greatest downer, the apparent meaninglessness of it all.

I also love Hebrews 12:11, another verse in a passage about the value of hardship and discipline. The writer acknowledges that ‘no discipline seems pleasant at the time’. This is no glib grit-your-teeth-and-keep-smiling passage: by admitting that it hurts much credibility is given to the call to endure it anyway, believing by faith that it is doing you good.

Missionary doctor John White tells the story of being with the family in a remote area and having his son fall and split his face open. He had no instruments, no anaesthetic, but only a small sewing kit, and he recounts the horror of having to hold down his screaming son while he stitched up the wound. It was desperately painful for all concerned, but for his son’s healing it had to be done. I guess the time came when he grew up and could realise that, and even thank his dad for doing it, but probably not immediately.

Having surgery and radiotherapy for cancer was no picnic, but I got through it by believing that it was doing me good, and would lead ultimately to health. In fact a doctor who decided to do nothing just because it might hurt me would be in serious neglect of his duties. I’m coming to realise that a God who doesn’t let us suffer would be just as bad, and I’m learning, not to enjoy it, but at least to consider it joy by trying to see through to the ultimate purpose of it all.

Just really …

Yesterday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for a ‘Grand Organ Gala’, a selection of pieces renowned for their dramatic use of the Hall’s magnificent pipe organ. Later that evening I was surfing on YouTube (as you do), and rediscovered some of the work of the amazing Gospel and Jazz Hammond organist Billy Preston. Jazz, of course, is all about making it up as you go along: you have a basic tune and chord structure, but then you’re on your own. Any jazz musician will tell you that you have both good and bad days. Your improvisation can be sublime, but it can also be pedestrian, or even just bad.

On the other hand, something like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor are a bit more thought out. In awe as I am of JSB, even I can’t believe that he did that all in one go. The mathematical genius of Bach’s composition must have been sweated over for ages before it all came together. The Saint-Saens, too, is obviously a major piece of careful planning. At least that’s what the great man himself thought. “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again” he wrote of the piece. If you know it, you probably know the finale, when the great theme rings out clearly (if you don’t, watch the film Babe.) But what is so clever about the piece is that if you go back and listen you can hear the theme being hinted at in earlier movements: little snatches, sometimes only of a couple of notes, pop in and out, so that when you hear the theme in all its glory you realise that you have already heard it, but only in bits. This is composition par excellence: there is real skill and art involved.

And yet in a very different way Billy Preston and his ilk are equally clever. I like JS Bach, but I also like Keith Emerson. So which is best … Only one way to find out …

It’s like that with prayer and worship. There is real value in fervent, heartfelt, spontaneous prayer. There is real power in hearing someone pouring our their adoration or petition to God. It might be raw, but it’s real. But there can also be exquisite beauty in something which I prepared earlier, something which has been sweated over, polished, probably scrapped and restarted a few times until it says what I want to say in the best possible way. In other words, liturgy.

A girl from the Anglican church where I was vicar left to work in a proudly non-liturgical New Church. I can remember her coming home for Christmas and telling her Mum how much she missed the familiar Anglican liturgy compared to her new diet: ‘Not once in the whole prayer book does it say “just really”, and each prayer only has the word “Lord” in it once’. That’s the great value of liturgy: the words we offer to God in worship have been polished and sweated over until they are the best they can be. Not everyone loves every prayer, of course, any more than everyone loves every piece of classical music. Otherwise Desert Island Discs would go on for ever. But liturgy is about offering to God poetry rather than mere words: a symphony, not just a ditty.

The problem is that we polarise the two. Spontaneous prayer is the only real sort, or liturgical prayer is the only kind God is interested in. One is dead, dry, and out of a book, the other is real and living: you know the sort of rhetoric. But to exist on a sole diet of the spontaneous can rob us of deep beauty, while only ever to pray out of a book can rob us of the real immediacy of God. What we actually need is liturgy and liberty, not merely one or the other.

Friday Fun: In a relationship

Great Preaching Cock-ups No 1

Sometimes I get passionate while I’m preaching. Sometimes I get too passionate, to the point where I lose control of my thought processes. Back in the day I was speaking about the need to sustain a relationship with God, rather than merely using him as a slot machine where we put the prayers in and out come the answers. Others have talked in terms of the need to seek the face of God, and not just his hand. ‘How would you like it’ I asked the parents in the congregation, ‘if your kids only ever asked you for stuff without ever telling you they loved you?’ (I was only a new parent at that stage, so I hadn’t yet worked out that that was exactly how it is).

Not yet satisfied I pressed the point even further. ‘It’s just like filling your car up all the time, but never ever actually having a relationship with the petrol pump!’

Image

Incidentally, this was the same sermon in which I had earlier referred to the Jews ‘taking their pork chops to the Temple to offer sacrifices.’

Bad day.