When the music stops and the world just hangs in the air as time just holds her breath; and I hardly dare let my mind form words lest they break the sense of holiness I feel when the music stops.
When the stylus lifts but the vinyl turns till I walk across and make it stop; there’s a stillness there as the music sits deep inside my heart and holds me there as if the song is hearing me once the music stops.
And I didn’t want the song to end, and I relished every moment, and I wish I could inhabit all those twists and turns and laughs and tears as fully as I did the instant that I first experienced them.
But now I stand enveloped in this very sacred moment as the music stops.
The music stops: the world just hangs in the air; time holds her breath. I do not dare let my mind form words: they’d break this sense of holiness.
The music stops.
I knew these words were a song as soon as I wrote the poem, but the music just wouldn’t come. I sat at the piano. I sat with a mandolin. The song was almost audible, as if just round a corner, but nope, nothing would come. Lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic had given me songwriters’ block generally for the past year or so.
And then, more than a month later, I decided to doodle at the mandolin with these lyrics. I set the video on my phone running so I could later use that to help me write the song. To my surprise, the soundtrack to the above video just “happened”. The song had been there all along, as I suspected.
Yes, I could re-record this in a more polished performance – more even chords, better vocal technique and so on, but it seemed appropriate to simply share the moment the music started.
In the previous chapter, we thought about the house rules for being in God’s family, but today we move on to the idea of “family resemblance” – the outrageous claim that as God’s children we will grow to be like God ourselves; that we shall see God as God truly is; and we shall be pure even as God is pure. It sets up a hope of heaven for each one of us which might seem like an arrogant claim at first glance. But our claim is humble: it comes from being mere children of God, growing in Christ, abiding in God’s love in the family of the Church. It will be seen in what we do, in our increasingly being led away from the way of temptation towards God’s ways, as the spirit grows within us.
John is making clear how spirituality works. It isn’t some external thing, or just one aspect of our being. John challenges the Gnosticism which threatens these Christian communities by explaining how flesh and spirit really works. They are intertwined, not separate realities. Just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, so our calling is to be fully human and yet citizens of heaven, bound by the duties and rules of that kingdom, and enjoying the privileges of heavenly citizenship even as we live on earth.
Love is the measure of this. Do we love our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we run to the aid of the persecuted Church? Do we see poorer parishes in our Diocese and fail to send everything we can in our freewill offering that they may thrive? “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Love is practical, not theoretical. It is a spiritual reality which expresses itself in the flesh.
This word “abiding” is very intimate. The Trinity is described in terms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit abiding in one another. It means intimately making oneself at home. It means deeply dwelling with someone – a dwelling so deep that you are of a common will and mind, a relationship of intimate understanding and mutual self-giving. This is how God is, and how we are called to be. We are called to abide not only in God, but in one another. To be of one mind in pursuing God’s will, and walking together in God’s ways. This comes from unity and a common purpose of body, mind and spirit among the family of God.
Abiding in God’s love involves a sacrificial abiding in one another’s love, too.
John styles himself “the elder”. He’s the big brother, the trustworthy uncle, the father of the faith, and he’s writing to reassure the rest of his family. They belong together in the family of God and John addresses them as fathers, children and young people in the same family of faith. But whatever people’s role or age within this family, they are bound by the same house rules. Many households have re-learned this in recent months as grownup offspring have returned home for inter-generational lock down. You learn not to flush the downstairs loo when someone is having a shower. You learn to stack the dishwasher in the approved household manner. But John gives house rules of a different order for God’s family, the Church. The house rules involve obeying God’s commandments and living as Jesus did; they involve loving one another within the family of God, just as Jesus loves; it means not loving the ways of the world, but loving God’s ways, and choosing obedience to the will of God in the face of worldly expectations, just as Jesus chose.
But John adds a key rule for the times and challenges of his original listeners. When he warns of antichrists, he is warning them of some who profess faith in Christ, but deny Christ’s divinity: those who talked of Jesus simply in wafty spiritual terms – of a divine spirit inhabiting or haunting the man Jesus. But John warns them that this won’t do, and they have rightly rejected this twisted gospel: wafty, nice, spiritual things are all very beguiling, but Jesus is God and our faith is rooted in his humanity as well as his divinity. John warns them, as he warns us, not to deny Christ for who he truly is: the Son of God, the eternal Word.
“What you have heard from the beginning…”
What did the disciples hear on Easter morning? What was the first thing that the followers of Christ heard that Sunday morning from Mary? The message was “He is risen!”. That is what they heard from the beginning. That is the Easter message. So John writes: “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you” – if the message “Christ is risen” is alive in your heart, “then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.” – then God lives in us and we in God, eternally. That is the message of love which John brings. It was not that a good man called Jesus died and his spirit continued to live, but that Jesus who was the Christ, the Anointed, the Messiah – the Son of Man and the Son of God – vanquished sin and death; and therefore we may abide with God forever.
That truth is what anoints us for God’s service. The Holy Spirit which the Father sent at the request and will of the Son rests upon us and anoints us because Jesus lives, and sends us, his continuing family to bless the world in his name. That is our calling: to abide in the world as God’s family, witnessing to God’s love, and proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
This letter is a testimony to eternal life revealed in the person of Jesus. It is a testimony to love – the love which is present in our fellowship with God the Father and God the Son. Indeed, the love and life which is testified to by John is a test of the church: a sure measure of whether we truly are walking in the light with Christ or not. And it is a letter speaking into eternal truth: a testimony to our being welcomed into the living light of God’s eternal glory, despite living in a world of darkness and sin.
God’s Love overcomes death: John’s testimony is to “the word of life.” God’s Love overcomes sin which leads to death.
Even as John presents encouraging words of eternal life and joy to us right at the start of his letters, he isn’t writing simple, encouraging platitudes. He is partly writing to encourage a Christian community which has been under attack from people preaching a different Gospel in which the flesh and the spirit are seen as completely distinct – indeed, that Jesus was not truly human, but was perhaps a spirit taking over a human, because to the gnostic mind, flesh and spirit were irreconcilable. John takes this head on.
“Sin” is everything which does not conform to God’s perfect will. If we want to know what a human life free from sin looks like, we look to Jesus. John reminds us that Jesus himself is the light. In him, we see what it means to live in accordance with God’s holy will, to pursue God’s ways, to live and work as citizens of heaven, and strive to make things on earth as they are in heaven. In Christ, flesh and spirit are one: divine will and humanity are reconciled. At the Ascension, Jesus bears the wounds of the cross as he ascends into heaven, revealing that there is no dualism: our wounded humanity has its place in the spiritual perfection of heaven through Christ.
Yes, God’s light does contrast with our darkness. Yes, the holiness of heaven does contrast with the sinfulness of our lives on earth. But these letters of love call us to walk as children of light; to walk with Christ and with one another. To do this we need to confess our sins – our contribution to the darkness – and through the blood of Christ to be cleansed from all that is not of the light, and to receive God’s forgiveness.
So, as God’s forgiven and forgiving people, let us call to mind our imperfections; neither lightly, as if they are of no importance (for they are important enough that God sent his only Son that we might not perish but have eternal life); nor weighed down with a sense of hopelessness that our need of repentance is never-ending (for we are truly people of everlasting hope in Christ); rather, we call our sins to mind knowing that in Christ we are called to righteousness of life, and to walk daily as children of light.
And it came to pass that, with no oversight from Ofsted, no national masterplan, no governor monitoring visits, together with their fellow staff members and leadership teams, literally overnight, teachers switched from their carefully-crafted long, medium and short term plans for lessons and teaching, and… learning continued. Yes, what has replaced it isn’t something entirely comparable, because we are navigating an international crisis. The idea recently tweeted by Lord Adonis that Ofsted should in the imminent future be auditing and assessing the quality of current arrangements is a nonsense, and unhelpful nonsense which insults our teachers and schools. Similarly, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s suggestion that teachers work evenings and weekends to “catch up” after lockdown does similar disservice to the amazing thing which has happened through our teachers and our schools since they closed to most pupils. Nobody is pretending that what is currently happening is what anyone would have planned in an ideal world because, guess what? These are not ideal circumstances, and yet teaching has continued to be available, not only to the children of key workers who continue to come onto school sites, but at a distance, too. Resources get to pupils. Opportunities to collaborate in learning with others continue by other means. A friendly face from school can appear on a computer, tablet or phone screen, or an encouraging voice can be heard over the phone. And, though you’d have to strain hard to hear the national applause for teachers singled out among the Thursday night “Cacophany for Keyworkers”, their share of the applause is surely due, though they have never sought it for themselves. Teachers have performed this minor miracle with no fuss, whilst under a lot of stress, with households of their own to rejig and navigate, whilst having to deal, in some cases, with pressure and criticism from parents and carers who believe something different ought to be happening. And despite doing this with no notice to speak of, they have done it well.
One thing we as a nation should be learning from this is that we can trust teachers and headteachers. It turns out that teachers and headteachers would not have been coasting complacently along were it not for the prospect of assessment and inspection. That insidious narrative is, I hope, dead and buried, Lord Adonis’ gibbering notwithstanding. I am really proud to be a governor of St Mary’s C.E. Primary School in Boston Spa. The way our staff have risen to the challenge has been wonderful. Their professionalism was never in doubt, and nor was their ability to teach, but they have proven themselves invaluable to families not only in terms of continuing to offer teaching, but also by being an anchor for children as history swirls around them, and helping children realise their own strength to meet the challenge of these unsettling times. All this at the same time as continuing to teach the children and support parents in managing lockdown by providing some valuable structure to the days, and resources to use at home. They are living out the Christian ethos of the school in how they lovingly serve their pupils, and model how the school’s values continue to be key to seeing everyone through the current situation. They continue to be there for them. They are not virtual teachers in virtual classrooms: the teaching and learning is real, it’s still on offer, and so is the teacher-pupil relationship.
From 12 years experience as a school governor in various schools, I know that monitoring and assessment were never the drivers for good teaching – that isn’t why they are important. They were, at their heart, tools for the teaching staff themselves: that’s why they are important! The real drivers of good teaching were the teachers all along. Many of us, especially school governors. are saying: “We told you so!”, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which the government decide to trust teachers and headteachers as our national future unfolds and the way “back to school” is navigated. It was because of who teachers are, their strength of character, commitment to the children, their professionalism and their amazing levels of skill at their job, that this new way of doing school has happened. It’s not perfect, of course – it’s a work in progress, and it hasn’t happened uniformly across the country, or even between similar schools in the same area. Some are Zooming a lot, others bob in and out of Google classrooms, and yet others are working via Microsoft Teams or using myriad other means to do this initially-scary, new, live online stuff. Classroom management skills online are a different beast. Interpersonal relationships play out differently there and there is netiquette to learn and different forms of safeguarding issues and protocols to implement. A lot of teachers. though, haven’t been doing heaps of live, online teaching, and that is fine, it really, really is, and do you know why? It’s because they are professional teachers, and they know how to teach. It also highlights the eternal truth that teaching is a collaborative act between teachers, pupils and parents and carers, and the new balance towards a more immediate and proximal involvement of the adults at home in the learning has been challenging in a lot of cases. But in terms of what teachers have been offering, it isn’t about the medium, or the resources first and foremost: they’re just the tools, so parents who worry that the school their child is at isn’t doing enough live screen stuff can rest easy. Teachers know how to use the tools available, and they put the learning and welfare of the kids first, which doesn’t always mean that the shiniest, newest bit of tech gets used. Teachers know what they can do with the new technology, and what its limitations are, and what their own strengths and limitations are. That is what informs what gets used. Teachers know what will work well with their own teaching style, even as they adapt that style to fit new times. And they know their pupils: they know what to provide to help kids and their households get through this. In supporting learning as they currently are, teachers are helping families through this current period of uncertainty, change and discombobulation. They continue to play a pastoral role in children’s lives. And they have performed this minor miracle with little applause, in a way which puts them and their own households at risk by continuing to go into schools to risk cross infection with a number of households which, by the very nature of the work the parents and carers do, are high risk. The other side of the equation is the parents and carers who have doubtless had new insight into the challenge of teaching and learning themselves, often as they try to work from home themselves. The thing is… children will learn whatever happens. The most important thing they will learn at the moment will be informed by how the adults closest to them react to events. Members of their household, together with the teaching staff at school (and perhaps even other adults they know such as the local vicar if they see him online, too) will teach this generation how our values and personalities are the key to tackling life’s challenges.
St Mary’s school had already taken up Galatians 5:22-23 as its key Bible verses to act as our guiding light, even before we entered our current circumstances. I thank the staff of St Mary’s for living out these verses and communicating the Gospel far more effectively than any sermon I could give on them. In these verses, St Paul encourages Christians in troubling times. Around them, the world is full of “rotten fruit”, namely that people are doing their own thing, not anchored in God’s ways, and living in a way which hurts others deeply, and does not make for a loving society in which things on earth are more like they are in heaven. By contrast, Paul encourages them to live lives which reveal contrasting fruit: Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should be evident, and in every single element of this fruit, the teaching and support staff of St Mary’s have not been found wanting.
Thank you for being a blessing to so many, and God bless you all. And hang in there…
*Author’s note: the views expressed are my own and are not presented on behalf of anyone else, or any bodies of which the author is a member*
Late Lent, Holy Week and Easter took place under lockdown conditions. I have struggled to put the experience of this into words, but I have managed to express something autobiographical about it in audio-visual form. Lasts about 8 minutes and is worth wearing headphones for. Possibly best listened to in a darkened room with a glass of something pleasant and comforting. And a dog.
I’ve been preparing the ashes for Ash Wednesday this afternoon. It’s quite an interesting process (at least, The Dog™ thought so as he supervised).
How to prepare ashes for Ash Wednesday…
Collect in the palm crosses from last year from folk at church.
Bake them (the crosses, not the folk at church) at 220 degrees centigrade for half an hour or so. This burns off the oils in the leaves so that they will burn to ashes when you start getting serious about burning them in step 3.
Get serious about burning the palm crosses. In my case, this involved snipping them up, putting them in a foil tray out of the recycling, then setting about them with a kitchen blowtorch outside.
Once they are pretty comprehensively burnt, grind them with a mortar and pestle.
Add olive oil and stir it really well so the ash is mixed in completely.
Pour it into a handy glass jar from the recycling.
The Song of Simeon is something I grew up with, and it’s now something we can all experience every 3rd Sunday of the month at our Benefice Sung Evensong in Thorp Arch, too. When I was a chorister as a lad growing up in Halifax, choral evensong was a regular part of my Sunday routine, and the Nunc Dimittis was always sung: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”. There’s something rather endearing about hearing the words of Simeon, an old man, sung by young choristers. Simeon had been awaiting the promise of the ages – the coming of the Messiah – to be fulfilled in his own lifetime. Hearing what we know as the Nunc Dimittis, a song from the end of a life of faithfulness, sung by the voices of those who have all the potential of youthfulness is poignant and reminds us that the Nunc Dimittis should ring true for all of us, whatever our age, because it is the song which ends the story of Christmas.
It is no accident that the Anglican service of Choral Evensong uses the Song of Mary – the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” and the Song of Simeon – the Nunc Dimittis. These songs are the bookends of Christmas: the Magnificat is Mary’s response to the annunciation, hearing the news that she is to bear God’s Son; the Nunc Dimittis is Simeon’s response to the birth of the Messiah as the fulfilment of God’s promises. In the Church of England, at choral evensong it truly is Christmas every day.
So cast your mind back to the Nativity. The Word made flesh to dwell among us… Emmanuel, God with us… This was something long-awaited by the faithful, women like Anna, men like Simeon, who were awaiting not only the Messiah, but for salvation to be revealed to the whole world – the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people. Handel’s oratorio Messiah is all about Christ – his birth, passion, death and resurrection – but only uses words from the Old Testament to tell the tale. The Hebrew Scriptures are brought to life in a new way as, in Christ, God’s promises revealed through the prophets, are kept. The Acts of the Apostles – Luke’s sequel to his retelling of the Gospel – focuses on the story of how the good news of God’s Kingdom was spread to the Gentile world. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul telling a Jewish audience, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.” It’s the punchline to the whole book: God’s salvation is revealed to the whole world, is for everyone, but has been revealed out of the story of the faithfulness of the Jewish people. Faithful people like Mary and Simeon in whose songs – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – both refer to themselves as servants of God.
Luke ends the Christmas story with the Holy Family keeping Jewish customs and laws. Jesus has been brought to be circumcised, with temple sacrifices offered as he is dedicated to God as all firstborn sons in a family should be. And Jesus is recognized by those who had been faithful in worship: we are told that Anna, a widow, was always in the temple, and that Simeon was righteous and devout. Yes, Jesus will indeed be a light to the whole world, but he is recognized first by faithful Jews who have been waiting for him.
We need to be faithful and expectant. Yes, Christmas is over for another year, but our job is, like Choral Evensong, to make sure that it is Christmas every day. By that, I mean that we need to remember that part of our job is to reveal Christ in the world, daily. Like the Magnificat, our souls should strive to magnify the Lord: we should give thanks to God every day, and like Mary, be ready to go along with God’s plans for us, wherever they might take us. Like Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis, we should thank God for what we have seen of his glory – for the fact that we are saved through the power of Jesus, and having recognized God’s glory revealed in Jesus, get on with sharing that glorious light with others.
We are a Christmas people – the authors of Evening Prayer got it right. This is a daily thing, not just for a few days after Midnight Mass every year. And we are an Easter people. This is the moment in the Church year when we turn from the crib to the cross. We recall that the light of the world who came to us at Christmas is also the Resurrection Light.
We live in a time of uncertainty and change. The climate crisis hangs over us with no international consensus as to what to do about it. A year of uncertainty over what Brexit might begin to look like once an initial deal is actually negotiated lies ahead of the UK and the EU as meanwhile we live in a state of transition, subject to rules we no longer have a say in devising. Our job as Christians remains the same, though: to love God and neighbour, and to share the light of God’s salvation revealed in Jesus with the world by living as children of God, walking in the light of God’s love, and proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom in word and in action.
So every day we should take the opening words of Evensong to heart as our prayer: O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise… because we are Christmas people and we are Easter people, and have an eternally-relevant song to sing and life in Christ to live. Let us all year round be ready to be the means by which the light of Jesus is revealed in the world, and the Gospel of salvation is shared with others. Amen.