Amanda Thatcher reading Ephesians 6:10-18

I didn’t watch the whole of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, but I’ve seen this clip of the Ephesians reading by the former Prime Minister’s granddaughter, Amanda Thatcher, going round Twitter and the blogosphere. I was amazed by her composure and resolute assuredness in her delivery of this. I read here that she is a committed Christian. You can tell, can’t you?

The Heart in Waiting: Commotio records Bob Chilcott carols

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Bob relaxes in his ‘composer’s chair’!

Well, the weather was certainly appropriate for a recording of Christmas carols! Over the weekend the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, in which I have had the pleasure to sing for 5 years, recorded a disc of carols by Bob Chilcott in Keble Chapel, due for release in November 2013 on the Naxos label, under the direction of the mighty Matthew Berry. For those of you unfamiliar with the choir, it was founded in 1999 to provide a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the usual choral repertoire by focusing on little known works of the 20th and 21st centuries. For anyone who has been through the mill of Evensong repertoire for years (i.e. me), such a choir provides a wonderful opportunity to discover new music (especially by working with composers of new works), be challenged musically, and, well, have a good time with other like-minded individuals. The choir is that rare thing: amateur in the best sense of it being our hobby, while capable of negotiating difficult music. We get a fair bit of air-time on ClassicFM and Radio 3, and for a discussion on Radio 3 of the music on our last disc, the choral music of Francis Pott, see here: Caroline Gill of Gramophone Magazine calls the choir ‘uniquely good’!

With this in mind, you might ask why we were recording a disc of Bob Chilcott’s carols, some of whose works, unlike most of the repertoire we sing, are very well known in choral circles, and whose music isn’t (at least at first blush) as challenging a sing as Commotio’s usual staple diet. I’ve found that some can be quite snobby about his music, brushing it aside as ‘cheesey’, often lumping it together with the music of John Rutter. If you think there is nothing more to Chilcott’s music than An Irish Blessing, can I invite you to think again. I first realised there was more to his music than my school-girl choral experiences had led me to believe when I sang his Advent Antiphons in 2007. These are anything other than cheesey. Bob is a hugely experienced choral composer who writes in many different styles, but what I find underpins his music is the fact that it is so singable. You can really tell he’s a singer and I never feel vocally tired after singing his music, even for 12 hours a day during a recording! He also manages to compose music which is both musically interesting and accessible for a wider audience: no mean feat!

Inside Keble chapel

Inside Keble chapel

We recorded something like 24 individual movements/pieces, including the more well-known Shepherd’s carol. Many of the pieces were for unaccompanied choir, but we also recorded some with organ, harp, flute and oboe, and worked with a lovely soprano soloist, Laurie Ashworth. It was quite an experience getting used to singing with instrumentalists in the boomy acoustic of Keble chapel, but it was a lot of fun. Many of the pieces are absolute gems. Bob explained that he likes to set music to texts by modern poets such as Kevin Crossley-Holland and Helen Dunmore, and I found that these texts so wonderfully explore the mystery of the incarnation, which, given that this is a Christmas disc, is the central theme. Crossley-Holland’s poem The Heart in Waiting is particularly brilliant, and I think the title so amazingly captures both the about-to-be-ness and the eternity of God’s plan to become man: Jesus has been there since the beginning, a ‘heart in waiting’.

And Bob’s settings of these texts are sublime. He writes like a French composer in Les Anges de nos Compagnes, and his double-choir setting of Before the ice/O Magnum Mysterium is weighty and full of awe as the narrator contemplates the implications of the incarnation. But it was his setting of On Christmas Night that I loved the most. It is a collection of eight movements for choir, harp, organ, oboe and flute based on familiar texts such as Once in Royal David’s City, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (translated) and O little town of Bethlehem. For each text he has written a new tune, but then introduces the traditional tune later on into the texture, i.e. over the top of the new tune, and all this without the new tune sounding like it’s been written to ‘fit’ the old one – amazing! I can never understand how composers write new tunes to texts which have such well-established choral arrangements already. But Bob’s setting of This is the truth sent from above far outdoes the traditional Vaughan Williams arrangement in its simplicity and mystery, really bringing out how contrary the incarnation is to the world’s expectations.

Commotio recordings are never stressful, and it was an enjoyable weekend. There is a real spirit of ‘togetherness’ in the choir and it means that we always have a lot of fun making music without it ever being cliquey or diva-ish. And the tenors are always making us laugh: check out their Christmas jumpers!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

Christmas jumpers at the ready!

I’ll probably blog again about this once the disc is out (we’ll be having a launch concert in London in November). Watch this space! And if you can’t wait till then, here’s King’s College Cambridge’s offering of The Shepherd’s Carol in 2011.

Easter Homily by Sarah Coakley at Salisbury Cathedral

I came across this excellent homily on Fulcrum‘s website, and I urge you to read it: it is full of Easter joy and explains why the resurrection matters! I particularly like how the speaker talked about the modern idea of the individual and how it does not want to submit to and ‘die with’ Christ. This is very much something I resonate with!

So here is the great truth at the heart of Christian faith:  resurrection. Stake your life on it, struggle with it, and everything will change. Die, turn, see … and live in this mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, who, in its Salisbury manifestation, has turned out here this morning in the cold and dark to start you on this great adventure of the Christian life of redemption, joy and fulfilment, and will hold you in it in all your frailty and glory, unto your life’s end. For Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.’

Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation

Dr Goebbels und die Weiβe Rose

Groβmutter, die Bedingungen haben dich erschossen und deine Kinder vergast. Es waren gar nicht die Deutschen, es waren die historischen Bedingungen und die totalitäre Ideologie.L. Fleischmann, Dies ist nicht mein Land, Hamburg 1980, s. 248.

Grandma, it was the conditions at the time that shot you dead and gassed your children. It wasn’t the Germans at all, rather the historical conditions and the totalitarian ideology.’

I came across the above quotation yesterday in my reading on the language of National Socialism (another of the topics I’ll be teaching from October). It captures the sentiment that many post-war Germans did not wish to recognise their nation’s guilt regarding the atrocities committed in their name during the Nazi period, focusing instead on their own suffering as victims of war. Indeed, we know that many Germans of the period remained committed to the National Socialist cause to their deaths, denying that ordinary Germans had any role to play in the turn of events.

Joseph Goebbels was certainly one such German. The members of the White Rose resistance group, on the other hand, were very much not. Most British people have heard of Goebbels. Few Brits would, I’d wager, recognise the names Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber, (and they’re just the famous ones!)

Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst and Sophie Scholl

So why am I blogging about these Germans from the past? What did they have in common, and how were they different? Why should we care? I want to draw light on the ways in which, on one particular day, they used words very differently, and dwell a little on what those words signified (and still signify today).

Like many, I’ve grown up knowing Goebbels as a household name. We learned about him in school, and even saw films of him wildly gesticulating and screaming out the usual Nazi diatribe. Even as a German student, however, I never once came across the Scholl siblings, to say nothing of the others, even though in Germany the members of the White Rose have in the years since the Second World War almost reached cult status. Although I stumbled across their story a while ago now (having read this brilliant book), it was only when recently reading Goebbels’ diary during a dull moment in the Bodleian a couple of months ago that I was struck by a connection between the Propagandaminister and the Weiβe Rose, and that was the different ways they were using words on one particular day in 1943. I was reading what Goebbels had to say about one of the most important speeches of his career, known as the Sportpalastrede, given on 18th February 1943 in the Sportpalast in Berlin. Yesterday, I happened to come across this speech again in my study of the language of National Socialism. It’s one of his most famous, known primarily by the line Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? (‘Do you want total war?’) to which all present screamed their approval. You can read the German here, an English translation hereand listen to it here.

Goebbels’ speech in the Berlin Sportpalast, 18.02.1943

It was primarily the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad shortly before that prompted the Propagandaminister to deliver this speech. For the first time, there was an acknowledgement that Germany was in danger. Yet by the end, having appealed to the (very German) notion of war heroism, doled out suitable apocolyptic language and cast blame on anyone as long as they didn’t belong to the Herrenrasse, Herr Doktor Goebbels had his crowd (selected of course by the Nazis) eating out of his hand, sure in their support of total war and holding fast to the concept of the Endsieg.

Down south in Bavaria, on the same day, two students walked into the Lichthof (atrium) of the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität in Munich while lectures were going on. They quietly distributed anti-war leaflets which had been written and copied thousands of times, leaving them around the hall in obvious places. Hans Scholl, together with the others listed above, had been writing and distributing leaflets across the South of Germany for months. This was the sixth (English), written by Professor of Musicology and Philosophy Kurt Huber, and addressed to students, appealing to their intellect, their sense of morality, and their courage to stand up to the oppressive regime in power. Sophie had joined the others at university the semester before, and was keen to be involved in the action. Their usual pastime was copying the leaflets and sending them to students in different cities. On this occasion, they had a few leaflets left over. She suggested distributing them at the university. In the transcript of her interrogation, she tells how, “in meinem Übermut oder meiner Dummheit“* (‘out of high jinks or stupidity’), she gave one stack of paper on the gallery a shove and the pages wafted down to ground floor level in the atrium. A porter saw her and her brother Hans, and handed them over to the Gestapo. They were interrogated in the days that followed, put on ‘trial’, together with Christoph Probst, in front of the Volksgerichtshof in Munich on 22nd February, and executed on the same day. The other three members were arrested subsequently and also executed.

Hans and Sophie Scholl (along with many others involved in the White Rose movement) were Christians. Their faith motivated them to act. They knew that the world would not let Germany get away with blaming ‘historical conditions’ after the war. They grew up under Nazism and had initially been supportive of the regime. Over time, however, they started to see that Nazism had twisted key truths that they believed in. They met together, read books about philosophy and theology together, sang together and prayed together. Gradually, they came up with a way to respond: on paper. As Sophie said during the trial, ‘wir kämpfen mit dem Wort’ (‘we’re fighting with words’).

In his diary, Goebbels wrote the following about Christianity and Nazism in 1928:

Was ist uns heute das Christentum? Nationalsozialismus ist Religion. Es fehlt nur noch das religiöse Genie, das alte überlebte Formeln sprengt und neue bildet. Der Ritus fehlt uns. Nationalsozialismus muβ auch einmal Staatsreligion der Deutschen werden. Meine Partei ist meine Kirche, und ich glaube, dem Herrn am besten zu dienen, wenn ich seinen Willen erfülle und mein unterdrücktes Volk von den Sklavenketten befreie. Das ist mein Evangelium. (Goebbels, 1999, Bd. 1, S. 327)

‘What use is Christianity to us today? National Socialism is religion. All we’re missing is that religious genius that blows apart old surviving formulas and creates new ones. We’re missing the ritual. National Socialism will one day become the state religion of the German people. My party is my church, and I believe that I’m serving God best when I fulfil his wishes and free my oppressed people from the chains of slavery. That is my gospel.’

The Scholls’ Gospel was a very different one. Hans and Sophie’s parents rushed into the court room in the middle of their trial, and their father screamed ‘Es gibt eine andere Gerechtigkeit!’ (‘There is another kind of justice!) They were removed. They were, however, allowed to see Hans and Sophie for a few minutes each before they were executed. The following dialogue has been recorded in several places, but I’m taking it from a letter from Hans and Sophie’s mother to Sophie’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel. Her mother, Magdalena Scholl, looked to Sophie moments before she was led to the guillotine and said ‘Aber gelt – Jesus!’ (‘But remember – Jesus!’) Sophie’s response was ‘Ja, aber du auch.’ (‘Yes, but you must remember him too.’)

A lot can be learnt from the courage and faith of this group of students (all of whom were younger than me) to act in the hardest of situations.  Willi Graf, who was one of the second round of members of the group to be tried and executed, had the following to say about the Christian life (which I have very loosely translated). It’s taken from a display in the university in Munich, where there is a small exhibition to their memory. There’s lots to chew over for Christians.

In Wirklichkeit ist Christentum ein viel schwereres und ungewisseres Leben, das voller Anstrengungen ist und immer wieder neue Überwindung kostet, um es zu vollziehen.’

‘In reality, Christianity is much more a difficult and unsettled life that is full of struggles and always requires you to keep battling to actually live that life.’ 

~~~~

The sixth leaflet continued to be distributed long after the deaths of the key members of the White Rose and made its way to England, where it was copied and dropped by aeroplane over Germany in the closing stages of the war.

You can watch a trailer (with English subtitles) for the film ‘Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tage’ here. It has some shots of the Lichthof where the leaflets were distributed.

Here are some pictures of the Lichthof and the resting place of Hans and Sophie and Christoph Probst in the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst in Munich

Source:

*http://www.bpb.de/geschichte/nationalsozialismus/weisse-rose/61044/verhoerprotokoll-sophie-scholl?p=1

Lo, he comes

LO, he comes with clouds descending,

once for favoured sinners slain;

thousand thousand saints attending

swell the triumph of his train:

Alleluia!

God appears on earth to reign.

‘Advent’ (Latin, adventus) means ‘coming’. For centuries, Christians have observed a season of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a solemn season, but by no means sad. It is characterised by a sense of joyful expectation as we anticipate the second coming of Christ, as well as remembering his first coming. (From the inside of our church service booklet)

Our sermon this Advent Sunday was, unsurprisingly, all about watching and waiting for Jesus’ coming, both as a baby born in a cattle stall and as the Judge, coming on clouds descending. It is the latter that has particularly caught my attention this year. The preacher laboured those terms. Watching. Waiting. In the run up to Christmas, I’ve found I so easily get distracted by all the tat that I’ve often missed the point of Advent. I can’t shake off some of Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this morning. ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come … What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”‘ (Mark 13:33 and 37)

I find that lighting a candle aids meditation. It’s hardly a new idea, but I haven’t grown up in a tradition that heralds the merits of silence and contemplation, watching and waiting. This year, however, I’ve gone candle-tastic, and used it as an excuse to have some mother-daughter bonding time as she has taught me how to make Advent decorations. It’s also because I found myself with the slightly daunting task of making our church’s wreath, where one candle is lit each Sunday to symbolize the passage of the four weeks in Advent. I thought I’d share some of the fruits of my candle-inspired labours. (The church warden informed me how disastrous last year’s wreath was, and that I couldn’t possibly do any worse …)

I found inspiration in German and Dutch magazines – they’re everywhere over there. They told me everything I needed to buy: oasis, oasis trays, oasis fix, stub wire, candles, silver and gold spray. My mother then sent me out foraging in our local woods for tree ivy, holly, fir, and pine cones, that kind of thing. She brought a selection of other things that she’s collected over the years that can be sprayed like dried poppy heads, dried fruit, and so on. There’s no need to spend lots of money on expensive decorations in garden centres if you can spray your own, I have discovered! In the end we made a good number of decorations, which can be seen below.

I was informed that churches tend to like traditional foliage with not much glitz. This reflects the ‘solemn’ nature of Advent. Consequently, I avoided too much sparkle. I sprayed the tree ivy berries with the smallest amount of silver spray to give a hint of shimmer. Otherwise everything else is totally natural and collected from the local area – including the churchyard! (My mother also made a wreath for her church, and put me to shame! Hers is the second of the two.)

The stand was simple and metal and provided by the church. We then taped down four small dishes with oasis in (which were left over from our wedding and happened to fit) and added foliage. As a rule of thumb, cut off leaves about an inch from the bottom of the cutting, and put long stuff at the bottom, short stuff at the top.

My sister-in-law decided to make a wreath as a table decoration involving large candles. You can stand them in oasis using stub wire heated by a hob flame, so that the wire more easily fits into the bottom of the candle without making it crumble. Large candles obviously mean that there’s not a lot of space for foliage. My sister-in-law wisely chose to make her decoration quite simply, and it is beautiful:

My decoration was different in that I used stump oasis and had long thin candles, which resulted in the slightly ‘exploded’ look, as much more foliage is needed to fill the oasis. The cinnamon sticks can be purchased cheaply from florists. Otherwise everything else in the decoration has been foraged and in some cases sprayed. I found that the candles are very difficult to keep straight! I might try wider candles next year.

I also wanted to make something for the door to our house, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it. Mum gave me an old bare wreath made up of wired twigs. I wove ivy round it and added a few red baubles:

Last, I wanted to use the leftover foliage to make a stand for an Advent candle I’d bought in a Christian bookshop. For each of the days of December running up to Christmas day, there is a name or a characteristic of Jesus to meditate on. It reminded me a bit of the chorus of a song we sing on Quantock called ‘You are Holy’, where we recall many of the names we have for God. They are numbered as follows:

1

Lord

2

Saviour

3

Messiah

4

The Vine

5

The Way

6

The Truth

7

The Life

8

Immanuel

9

Redeemer

10

The Rock

11

The Word

12

Son of God

13

Counsellor

14

Lamb of God

15

High Priest

16

Anointed One

17

Living Water

18

Morning Star

19

King of Kings

20

Lord of Lords

21

Lion of Judah

22

Good Shepherd

23

Prince of Peace

24

Resurrection

25

JESUS

I hope and pray that lighting this candle each day of Advent will help me to become more aware of the many wonders of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee,

high on thine eternal throne;

Saviour, take the power and glory,

claim the kingdom for thine own:

Alleluia!

Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Because he lives!

My husband and I spent the bank holiday yesterday at a family barbeque in Surrey. Given that my brother and sister-in-law live so close to us, they kindly offered to drive us there and back. It was a fun sort of road trip which included listening (and joyously singing along) to a CD of all their wedding music from a couple of years ago. They also introduced me to a song/hymn they were surprised I’d not come across before called Because he lives. Getting the hang of the tune by about the second chorus, my husband and I were soon singing along, and I’ve had it humming round my head since.

I love singing, especially in contexts of worship. I think that’s what music was made for. I get every bit as much out of singing good praise music congregationally as I do out of singing the most beautiful sacred choral music, or singing or listening to a Bach cantata (more on that soon!) because the point is the same:

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Psalm 104:33

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3:16-17

When we got home (after a very enjoyable day out) I did a bit of research. The song seems to be an old-style gospel number written by Bill and Gloria Gaither, who have (so his wikipedia page tells me) written some 600 hymns and songs. Because he lives is one of their better known, and I can see why, as it’s so singable and uplifting! I particularly rejoice in the line Because I know he holds the future… He is the Alpha and the Omega: how wonderful that we get to trust in that! We share in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, which is freely given and open to all. What a hope! Here’s the text, and here‘s a rendition from youtube. Listen and sing along!

God sent His son, they called Him, Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Saviour lives!

Refrain
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

How sweet to hold a newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He Lives!

Refrain

And then one day, I’ll cross the river,
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain;
And then, as death gives way to vict’ry,
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He lives!

Refrain

The dangers of a ‘spiritualized’ Gospel

In the last year, my church took up the subject of ‘Social Justice and the Gospel’. I nearly wept with joy: as the main preacher in the series pointed out, social justice has been on the backbench in many evangelical circles over the last half a century at least. I had been thinking about issues to do with social justice for a long while and, after a number of discussions with various Christian friends, thought I’d share my thoughts and encourage people to give me their thoughts on the matter.

My main line of thought is this: I think motivation for social justice can only be understood in terms of the Gospel, and not as separate from it, and that evangelicals have had a tendency to read our own hermeneutic into what ‘the Gospel’ means. Working to bring about God’s Kingdom must therefore include striving for social justice. Now I can’t think of any Christian I know who would say that social justice isn’t important. But I’d argue that ‘salvation’ means much more than ‘spiritual renewal’: shrinking the good news about Jesus to a simply ‘spiritualized’ meaning, which I think we are sometimes in danger of doing when we evangelise, results in a faulty idea about creation, which may manifest itself in unhelpful ways, which I address below.

If it’s true that evangelicals have stressed preaching ‘spiritual’ salvation with the result that ‘social justice’ slid off the agenda somewhat, I sense that this has led to something quite unhelpful: the shrinking of ‘the Gospel’ into a ‘spiritual’ one, plus ‘social justice’ as some sort of add-on (which is nevertheless compulsory). I believe, passionately, that they are inextricably linked and must be understood as one, bound tightly together, and I think the New Testament supports this. What proceeds is, I suppose, some kind of justification of why I think this is the case.

I suppose it depends on what we understand by ‘the Gospel’. To figure this out, I asked some of my evangelical Christian friends what they understood by it. Most said, ‘the good news that Jesus died for us so that we can go to heaven when we die’. This concerned me, because, while it is in some sense right, it is at best only half the truth. If this were all there is to the Gospel, we would have to come up with a theology of this world as well as having one of the next. What’s the point of creation if we’re just chugging away, waiting to live with God in heaven?

As far as I can tell, the NT suggests that the good news about Jesus is that God, in spite of our rebellion, is going to restore/renew his creation and he has already begun this work through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God by dying on the cross for our sins and rising to new life: it being our rebellion that caused the world (and us as individuals) to be out of joint with God in the first place. This is, I think, what Ephesians 1 is all about, esp. verses 7-10, i.e. that God will bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Jesus is the first fruits of them that sleep (1 Cor 15:20), i.e., God has brought into the present the start of this new creation, this union of heaven and earth, which will be fulfilled at the end times as portrayed in Revelation 21. By acknowledging our sins and trusting in him, we share in his inheritance: we too shall be raised, and we live now as Christians in anticipation of that new creation (2 Cor 5:17 etc). So far so good, but it means that trusting in Jesus is less about ‘going to heaven when you die’, still less about disembodied heavenly bliss, a philosophy which I worry a great proportion of the (perhaps lay) worldwide church subscribes to and which is more Aristotelian than biblical, but rather seeking God’s Kingdom in anticipation of the new creation, living as aliens and strangers in this world. To my mind, yes of course that means telling everyone possible about the good news of Jesus Christ, just as we are commanded to do. But it’s not only that we can share in ‘eternal life’ in the sense that it will go on forever, but that that ‘life’, which we have a foretaste of as Christians in this world, obviously also involves the total renewal of creation so that there will no longer be any death, sickness, broken lives, etc.

I think this means, if we are truly to live as ambassadors of Christ in anticipation of new creation, that ‘social justice’ or whatever we want to call it really is part of the church’s mission and must be part of the ‘message’ of the church, because the Gospel cannot be understood fully without it. That’s not to say we should abandon evangelism – of course not, and I grant that there may have been this tendency in some parts of the church. Rather, the two go hand in hand, at best not separated at all, at least in theory. How this works out practically is, of course, another matter. Nevertheless, helping others’ physical needs is central to building God’s Kingdom, and not only to make our faith look attractive, although this is an important and noble motivation.

After all, Jesus spends most of the gospels telling people to give to the poor and help the needy, so keen is he to stress that he has come to turn the world as we know it upside down: to put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the hungry and meek, etc. I can’t think of an example where he adds the caveat ‘but you should only do this so that people believe in me’. Moreover, I can think of no example of Jesus’ healing where he distinguishes between spiritual and physical healing (e.g. Mark 2). For him, the two are one: in the new creation, our whole being – mind, soul, body, the lot – will be renewed altogether. I’m not suggesting for a second that this means, when someone becomes a Christian, their physical ailments will definitely, simultaneously, miraculously disappear. Of course not – we know that this can sometimes happen, but there’s no guarantee that it will. But we can be sure that in the (fulfilled) new creation, it will. And since Jesus embodies this new creation, he is the heaven-come-down-to-earth, God-with-us foretaste of the fulfilled new creation, when heaven and earth will be irrevocably sewn together in the New Jerusalem. All this suggests to me that ‘salvation’ cannot be divided up into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, at least ideally not.

I realise that, for the purposes of everyday trusting in Jesus, what I’ve described above amounts to little more than subtle differences in definition. All traditions in the church tend to stress something at the expense of something else, and at least evangelicals stress repentance and forgiveness of sins! I think there are, however, a couple of dangers that one risks falling into the trap of if one (perhaps inadvertently) allows the Gospel to be shrunk down to a ‘spiritual’ (and most often, ‘individual’) reading.

First, I fear this may manifest itself in a faulty idea about creation. So immersed are we in the West in the shade of Aristotle that there’s a hint that we buy into the idea of escaping a wicked, evil creation on this earth to enjoy everlasting bliss with God in heaven, which, of course, is Gnostic nonsense and thoroughly unbiblical. God created the world and saw that it was good, after all. When we evangelise, we often play this down, in order to stress individual forgiveness of sins. From experience, I’ve found this can lead to the tendency for non-believers to perceive God as a petty judge, ‘needing’ to be ‘satisfied’ by the blood of Jesus if he wants to let us in to heaven, and a holier-than-thou attitude on our part stressing our own individual eternal salvation: neither is right, or ideal.

Second, I think some Christians within evangelical circles risk losing a sense of the importance of space and buildings, because we’re so keen to stress that Jesus is our holy temple and that we can pray to him anywhere (again, with such good reason!) Space is important, church buildings and tradition too, if for no other reason than they’re the place where the saints have been meeting for two thousand years, and we worship with those saints, given that God stands outside of our understanding of time. Several unbelievers have told me how they have felt drawn to Christian teachings because of the peace they experience within the walls of a church building – the only quiet they can find in their otherwise hectic lives. We shouldn’t condemn this. We should encourage people to seek the truth behind that feeling of peace.

Eucharist is another difficult topic. It’s easy for us to play down its importance, because, inheriting the church’s past and coming from a tradition that rebelled against that past, we’re fearful that our congregations will start thinking we have to ‘do’ things to earn God’s favour. Your average evangelical doesn’t, by and large, spend a lot of time contemplating the Eucharist. But obviously it’s recorded in at least three gospels and in 1 Corinthians in an almost identical way, i.e. it was important from the Church’s very beginnings. I once read somewhere that Jesus didn’t give us a theory of the atonement, he gave us a meal. For in the new creation there will be a banquet, and when we celebrate the Eucharist we share in that feast with the church past, present and future. I’ve read that the Greek for ‘eat’ in John 6 is more literally ‘munch’. God’s Kingdom is not just a spiritual one; it involves all the senses. This does not, of course, have to mean that anything necessarily sacrificial is going on, or that bread and wine ‘become’ body and blood of Christ, etc etc. But it does mean that the Eucharist is a profound and important part of the life of the church which, if I put my hand on my heart, I don’t always feel is the case in some of our churches, because we ‘spiritualize’ it away for fear of misunderstanding it. Importantly, I believe that both our hesitancy regarding the Eucharist and physical space as somewhere to meet God have their root in a shrinking of the Gospel into a ‘spiritual’ one, with renewal of creation as a sort of extra doctrine.

Much of the main thrust of this post is elucidated far more coherently in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope: it’s not something I’ve come up with myself! Some of you will know that I’ve read a fair bit of Wright’s theology, but I believe this book is among the most important Christian books written in recent years, and I heartily recommend it if you’ve not read it. There’s a a fair review of it here on the UCCF’s apologetics website: http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/introductory/surprised-by-hope-by-tom-wright-a-review.htm

These are just my thoughts on having been a member of a couple of large evangelical church families for three years, coming from a background somewhere in middle Anglicanism, and are not intended to rebuke or criticise at all, rather to encourage discussion. Because I’ve sung in many church choirs and musical groups over the years, I have been blessed to get to know Christians of all types and experience their witness as members of churches of all different traditions, from the very high to the very low, from the very conservative to the very liberal, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal. My experience is that most Christians, like me, are walking the long road with Jesus towards the new creation, usually taking three steps forward but then two back. Let’s continue to pray for the church in its walk with the Lord as we seek to work for God’s Kingdom in hope, looking forward to that day when-

‘ … creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Romans 8.21

A poem for Holy Week

I’m always stunned by the poetry of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg. For those of you who haven’t come across her, she was an Austrian poet of the Baroque period who had mystic leanings. Her poem Uber den gekreuzigten Jesus (‘On the crucified Jesus’) needs no introduction.  For those of you who read no German, I have provided a (loose and not very accomplished) translation to give you the gist, which should ideally be read only as a gloss to the German.*

Enjoy the way she uses iconicity – particularly Jesus’ arms stretched open wide on the cross.

Uber den gekreutzigten JESUS

Seht der König König hängen /
und uns all mit Blut besprengen.
Seine Wunden seyn die Brunnen /
draus all unser Heil gerunnen.
Seht / Er strecket seine Händ aus / uns alle zu umfangen;
hat / an sein liebheisses Hertz uns zu drucken / Lustverlangen.
Ja er neigt sein liebstes Haubt / uns begierig mit zu küssen.
Seine Sinnen und Gebärden / sind auf unser Heil gefliessen.
Seiner Seiten offen-stehen /
macht sein gnädigs Herz uns sehen:
wann wir schauen mit den Sinnen /
sehen wir uns selbst darinnen.
So viel Striemen / so viel Wunden /
als an seinen Leib gefunden /
so viel Sieg- und Segens-Quellen
wolt Er unsrer Seel bestellen.
zwischen Himmel und der Erden
wolt Er aufgeopffert werden:
daß Er GOtt und uns vergliche.
uns zu stärken / Er verbliche:
Ja sein Sterben / hat das Leben
mir und aller Welt gegeben.
Jesu Christ! dein Tod und Schmerzen
leb’ und schweb mir stets im Herzen!

~

Source: http://www.wortblume.de/dichterinnen/gekjesus.htm

On the crucified Jesus

See, the King hanging as King,
see how he sprinkles us all with blood.
His wounds, they are the fountains
out of which our rescue pours forth.
See how he stretches wide his hands to enfold us all;
See his yearning to press us to his heart that burns with love.
Yea, he bows his most beloved head eagerly to bestow kisses upon us,
all his senses and gestures together stream out to rescue us.
His merciful heart causes us
to see his sides, wide open.
As we gaze upon them with all our senses
we see ourselves in them.
So many furrows, so many wounds
Are to be found on his body
such wellsprings of victory and blessing
that he intends for our souls.
Between Heaven and Earth
he chooses to be sacrificed
to match us with God.
To strengthen us, he fades himself.
Indeed, his death has given life
to me and to the whole world.
Jesu Christ! Let your pain and death
live and move me in my heart!

*There are some parts of her syntax which have – frustratingly – left me baffled. The Germanists among you are invited to comment on the inaccuracies of my translation.