Wow, so, it’s aaaaaaages since I last blogged! So much has been going on since then, including the amazing experience of ordination, the challenging experience of bringing a Border Collie puppy into the Nomad family, and the exciting experience of being joined by a new Superintendent and together developing a new two-person ministry team in Saltash Circuit. However, I’m not going to blog about those things right now (I really do hope to come back to them sooner rather than later!), but rather I want to blog about the worship I led on Sunday evening, which a couple of folk not there have asked about. One of the things my new Super and I promised each other when we met up over a drink in an Exeter pub a few months ago (appropriately enough the pub has a pulpit in it!) was that we would challenge each other to be creative in the worship we lead. So on Sunday, knowing he and/or his wife might be in the congregation (they both were), I took that challenge head on.
(NB – I’ve used Spotify embed codes to put music in this post. I’m not sure if it’s workable for everyone. Please do feed back to me whether you have problems accessing the music or not – I know the videos work!)
I took as my theme the text of Genesis 28.16 – Jacob’s exclamation when he awakes from his dream at Luz, which he named Bethel: “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” From this theme I took the congregation through a journey of occasions when I have encountered God not in Church but in other places – and because I wanted to bring those places into the sanctuary they weren’t physical places but media items instead – music, tv, literature.
Once all were gathered, before I read the passage from scripture and welcomed everyone, I began by immediately giving them a curve-ball, a beginning to a journey into the unknown that they didn’t even know they were going on:
Following the reading, my explaining of the theme, and a prayer of invocation, I took them to what I hoped was familiar ground, with singing a hymn by Charles Wesley: “Father, in whom we live” (#5 in Singing the Faith, the latest Methodist hymnbook).
After this I suggested that most of us found God in places (or media) that aren’t specifically located in a Church-type space or theme, for example in the music we listen to at home, but I also suggested that for many of us that music might actually not be a million miles from what we think of when we think of as Church. It might, for example, be that we listen to music such as this:[spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/7qwQsjV68xKkT7t6mR18Fg]
The “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a glorious piece. As I made clear in my Desert Island Discs, I’m a fan of J S Bach, and I find this whole opus intriguing – a Latin Mass, written by a man who could never have hoped to hear it used in a worship setting given he was Lutheran musician working in a setting which only ever used the vernacular language (German in Bach’s case). Yet whatever the intricacies and oddities of Bach’s Mass it is clearly “God music”.
Sometimes, though, I have profoundly met God in moments where the music is not overtly Godly. Last summer, when I was in the midst of my depressive crash, with Black Dog weighing down on me like some hound from the very depths of hell, I was in my bedroom listening to an album I’d just downloaded by an instrumental jazz trio I’d happened to catch playing live on Jamie Cullum’s BBC Radio 2 show. Suddenly, despite the black weight upon my shoulders, I found myself dancing wildly around the room in a moment of ecstasy – it may be hard to dance with the devil on your back, but this piece aloud me to![spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/4MHAGSODjJmbIurYFdnvF4]
In the wake of this piece we prayed a prayer of praise, and sang the hymn “God is love: let heaven adore him” (#103 in Singing the Faith).
But I didn’t want us sticking to music, or with God simply entering into the emotions of our lives. I believe that God’s presence in the world around us provokes us in other ways, such as asking us questions. One place I’ve found this is in novels. One of my favourite novelists is Terry Pratchett, a man who is always raising questions. Recently I’ve been reading the first in the series of books he’s written with Sci-Fi writer Stephen Baxter.
In this novel humanity has discovered how to move from this earth we live on (the Datum Earth) into the seemingly infinite earths that sit alongside us. These earths are both the same and yet different to ours, demonstrating the vast range of possibilities our earth could have followed had things been different (including no humanity in any other). The main characters travel into these earths, stepping one world at a time. More than 2,000,000 earths away they encounter a strange sentient being, with whom they engage in conversation of a kind. It is at this point that Pratchett and Baxter write the following:
Once, long ago, on a world as close as a shadow:
A very different version of North America cradled a huge, landlocked, saline sea. This sea teemed with microbial life. All this life served a single tremendous organism.
And on this world, under a cloudy sky, the entirety of the turbid sea crackled with a single thought.
This thought was followed by another.
To what purpose?
“To what purpose?” Isn’t this a question most people ask? And it is question which also at least acknowledges the possibility of God (as the theologian Herbert McCabe notes amongst others – incidentally, but not by coincidence, our new dog is called McCabe!) There’s the great question, in the midst of a short novel full of strange ideas and comic incidents, and might we wish to suggest there’s God in the midst of it all, provoking us into asking the question that at least hints at the possibility of God’s existence?
But it’s not all existential. I think God uses literature and other things to give us ways into understanding about both God and life as Christians. I’ve mentioned before about my friend and former rugby skipper Steven Gauge’s book.
At one point in the book, Steven writes about the challenges of putting together a rugby team – in particular, a rugby team playing in the very lowest levels of organised amateur rugby! This was something Steven did for 3 years as captain of the Mighty Warl’s 4th XV, and he did it pretty well. Amongst his thoughts on the matter were these words:
Rugby is more than a game played by men with odd-shaped balls. It is a game played by very odd-shaped men. Huge men with strange accents and few teeth; small, thin boys with more hair gel than body fat; and old men largely held together by gaffer tape and neoprene. There is a job on a rugby pitch for almost everyone, and all the positions require a different set of physical attributes and inclinations.
Anyone who knows me, and who knows Paul’s letters, will be unsurprised to learn that when I preach on Paul’s imagery of the Body of Christ having many members or parts, I often use the metaphor of a rugby team as so ably described my former skipper!
Thinking about God in the world in this way led us into our intercessions before some further thinking. I returned to music next. Not, though, in terms of its emotional impact and how God might wordlessly reach out to us through the emotiveness of music, but rather how God can teach us through music. As a liturgist one of the things I frequently hear from people inside the church discussing how we might do worship that appeals to people outside the church is that people today don’t know a) how to sing and b) don’t get the interactivity of formal liturgy. I can’t disagree more, and the reason is moments like this:
Freddie Mercury was possibly the most operatic rock singer ever to grace the world. Actually, scratch that, not “probably”, he simply was. And yet here he is, in 1986, getting a Wembley Stadium music crowd to sing what are actually fairly complex musical scales. Ah, but people say, that was almost 30 years ago now, crowds today are different! Really, are they? I beg to differ:
I wasn’t at Manchester Cathedral for that particular gig, but my birthday present this year was tickets to go and see Elbow play at the Eden Project. It was a truly amazing experience which reminded me once again that actually people today still innately a) know how to communally sing (the last notes at that concert were not sung by the band but by the audience!) and b) get the back and forth of liturgy.
However, with all this encountering God in the world, our problem is that so often we’re not open to God’s presence, or we’re not paying attention. My favourite television programme is The West Wing. I’m a former student of American politics and I was lucky to be living in the US in 1999 when the first season of The West Wing aired. It’s ostensibly a show about politics, but it actually has a great deal to say about faith and God as well (I dream of doing a Bible Study series using The West Wing as a base object). Early on, in season 1, it had this to say about not actually hearing God when we’re spoken to in the world:
In the light of this clip we of course prayed a prayer of confession before reflecting finally on our call to be out in the world and encountering God in the people and places we meet rather than supposing we might only encounter God in the language, actions and people of the Church. Our final hymn was “Come with me, come wander” (#462 in Singing the Faith) and then I blessed the congregation, though I didn’t use my own words, instead I reminded them that actually, sometimes, God’s presence in culture is blatantly obvious even when we miss it, and blessed them with the music of Florence + the Machine covering Candi Staton, which was a major chart hit and whose theological references really are starkly obvious![spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/0fPf9CDFzVnHpcfld5XVtO]