Sermon 13 09 20: Jazz and breath – International Music Festival

International Music Festival

Sermon pre-recorded and broadcast at and from St Asaph Cathedral

13th September 2020

Masks are disconcerting to those who see us wearing them. They conceal. I have failed to recognise people I know quite well. They make it hard to intuit mood, to hear – how much more lip-reading I must do than I ever realised. But they are also hard to wear.

I still haven’t learnt how to wear glasses with a mask and not steam up.

the first time I had to wear a mask for several hours I felt dizzy – perhaps  I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

I have spent much of my adult life teaching people how to breathe. To have good posture, to show them the science lab lungs and explain that its the diaphragm that does the work not the lungs. I have urged people to raise their chins so as not to hamper their breathing, to open their chests out, shoulders back.

And now we do this thing of putting a mask on; deliberately hindering our breathing.

Musicians, and especially singers, know all about breathing and its importance. 

For most of us we are usually unaware of our breathing until we have difficulties, a cold, asthma, or find ourselves in a room full of smoke.

But one of my earliest memories is of breathing.

My favourite hymn is Breathe on me breath of God. Since this is a music festival perhaps I will upset a good proportion of you if I tell you my preferred tune. And it is a hymn text set to a remarkable number of different tunes. But for me  I will always associate the words with Charles Lockhart’s Carlisle.

I love this text because it reminds me of being a small child. I had fallen in the garden and my knee was bleeding. Running into the house my mother scooped me up and sat down with my on the sofa. As I sobbed my heart out I felt her breathing. Her warm breath on my head and her chest rising and falling. That moment has stayed with me for the whole of my life. Breathe on me breath of God. The breath that mothers me. The breath that brings me back to my true self. The breath that weathers storms external and internal.

Musicians know the importance of breathing.

But breathing is important to us all. It is important because it is literally life-giving. In the book Genesis God breathes into the dust, the earth, to give it life. In Hebrew the ruach the spirit is the wind and breath that bring life to dry bones. In the Greek of the new testament the spirit is pnuema, the breath, the air and for Christians the hagia pneuma the Holy Spirit is God. God who gives life and gifts.

Last summer my mother died and my brother and sister and I sat around her bed in the hospice where she died. Over her final hours we followed her every breath as they became shallower and shallower until finally she just stopped breathing.

Breathe on me breath of God.

learning how to breathe might sound like something we don’t need to do.

I teach breathing as part of teaching Mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness is very much in fashion these days. But Christians have been practising mindfulness throughout Christian history. One collection of texts in the Russian and Greek Orthodox tradition, the Philokalia teaches the combination of careful breathing with the word of the Jesus Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

But words are not necessary. Mindfulness of breathing, just being aware of our breathing wakes us up to awareness of so much more. We live in shadow, in twilight for much of our lives not noticing the miracles that surround us; that are us.

Noticing our breathing. Breathing in and knowing that I am breathing in. Breathing out and knowing that I am breathing out.

Music too can be like that. Taking the very ordinary, sounds. And arranging it in a way that helps us notice them.

I am a great fan of the jazz musician John Coltrane and I love this icon of him that has been painted. Carrying the saxophone with the fire of the Spirit showing in it the words on the scroll are a quote from him:

“God breathes through us so completely so gently we hardly feel it. yet it is our everything.”

Breathing is not just about what we do any more than music is just about what any of us does. Breathing connects us to something larger, something greater than just me.

The poet Don Paterson captures this beautifully in his series of sonnets on Orpheus. here is one called, simply Breath.

Breath

Breath, you invisible poem –

pure exchange, sister to silence,

being and its counterbalance,

rhythm wherein I become,

ocean I accumulate

by stealth, by the same slow wave;

thriftiest of seas … Thief

of the whole cosmos! What estates,

what vast space have already poured

through my lungs? The four winds

are like daughters to me.

So do you know me, air, that once sailed

   through me?

You, that were once the lead and rind

of my every word?

When we breathe we breathe in something that is not us and can recognise that we are dust that breathes. That this little breath that I breathe now is part of the air that inhabits the planet. 

It is a sign that we are connected to everything that is. 

This is why our pollution of the air is so frightening. We are polluting the stuff of our own lives. We are polluting ourselves.

It is a spiritual issue.

There is a wonderful book by Donald Miller the subtitle is “Non religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality” The book’s title is Blue Like Jazz and some of you may know the famous album by Miles Davis A Kind of Blue. That would probably be the album I would save if the waves took the remainder of my Desert Island choices.

In his introduction to his book Miller writes:

“I NEVER LIKED JAZZ MUSIC BECAUSE JAZZ MUSIC doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”

We live in an unresolved world. We live in unresolved times.

None of us can se ethe way ahead in this pandemic, or even know with certainty that we will be able to gather for this music festival in person next year or the year after.

Living with that unresolvedness is hard. It is stressful and creates anxiety.

But when we breathe we are always letting go. Our out breath matches our in breath. We might be able to hold our breath for a few seconds or even minutes but we can never hold on to our breath.

And as we let the breath go; if we wake up and recognise that God breathes through us, in us, that it it is the breath of God we will find a peace deeper and richer than we have ever guessed, we will  breathe the breath of God.

1 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

fill me with life anew, 

that I may love the way you love, 

and do what you would do. 

2 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

until my heart is pure, 

until my will is one with yours, 

to do and to endure. 

3 Breathe on me, Breath of God, 

so shall I never die, 

but live with you the perfect life 

for all eternity. 

Sermon Christ Church Cathedral 13/09/20: Resentment, Fairness and Black Lives Matter

Sermon Trinity 13 2020

Christ Church Cathedral and Church At Home, Diocese of Oxford (on-line service)

Having worked in schools for much of my adult life I’ve heard the line “That’s not fair.” on multiple occasions.

Children and young people have a heightened awareness of fairness. At its best this can lead to the wonderful idealism that the young have and heroic works for justice in the way that Greta Thunberg has been doing.

At its worst an unrealistic expectation of fairness can lead to resentment.

Fairness is not a reward for good behaviour and is in short supply in the random-ness of disease, accidents and tragedies.

The two readings we have just heard are wonderful, but quite complicated.

The key to understanding them, it seems to me, is to remember that both Jesus and St Paul were not so much in the business of converting individuals as in creating a community. 

A community of the converted. 

A community of disciples.  

Paul’s letters to the first Christianity communities are almost all about that community-building and how those communities deal with the real, practical questions. 

In today’s first reading what it’s ok or not ok for Christians to eat and what christians should do, if anything, about keeping holy days.

Jesus’ public ministry was relatively short, probably just three years. But that is still quite a long time to be travelling with a group of people. 

The disciples were a very intense form of community. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of what Jesus teaches us about is how to be community, and particularly how to deal with the intense feelings that arise when human beings live and work together.

One of the key themes of many of the sayings and stories of Jesus is resentment. Fairness and unfairness. 

I think Jesus profoundly understands the corrosive nature of resentment as one of the key poisons that can destroy communities and individuals. 

Over and over again there is a clear reflection on the causes of resentment:

The labourers who work an hour at the end of the day and get paid the same a those who have worked all day; 

the older son who has stayed faithfully at home but then has to watch while a party is laid on for his younger brother who has just squandered half the family assets; resentment about who is the greatest, the favourite, among the disciples.

Today’s story is also about fairness and therefore about resentment. 

And it refers to a pattern of resentment that I see over and over again, with colleagues, church communities and across human societies. 

When someone is treated generously – like the servant in today’s gospel – they resent it and go on to treat others badly.

Now there are, no doubt, in-depth psychological reasons for this way in which we human beings sometimes react to generosity. 

But I want to think very practically about an issue of our own time and how we react to it.

In the twenty first century Christians, for the most part don’t worry too much about what food we are permitted to eat, although the climate crisis might raise more questions than most of us face on this. 

And most Christians are pretty settled about how we observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day and when we are most likely to worship. Although changing work and leisure patterns might suggest that we need to question that more than we do.

But we can’t get away from facing up to the crucial justice issues of our own day. I am fascinated by reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across not only American cities but around the world and very strongly here in the UK.

It’s a matter of justice that resonates deeply in my heart. Not only because we good Anglicans, are, of course, opposed to racism. But also because of my experience as a Head teacher in south east London where my school was a majority black school, and as a priest there at a church where the congregation was also majority black. Hearing the accounts that my friends, colleagues, pupils and their families shared about everyday racism shook me to the core. 

And noticing racism in action myself.

 When I was a school chaplain to a black Headteacher, if she and I were stood together or alone in a room when a visitor came in the assumption that I was the Head. This happened almost every week. 

Or taking a group of pupils on a school visit and people walking passed black colleagues to talk to me, the white man at the back of the line. This happened on almost every school visit I went on.

And these are minor examples. Casual racism. Every black person I know can tell much more horrifying stories, but those accounts belong to them not to me.

Of course as good Anglicans we are opposed to racism. 

But are we really?

In so many of the conversations I’ve heard about Black Lives Matter someone says, usually not very far into the conversation: 

‘But what we need to teach is that every life matters.’

That is a classic resentful response. Noticing someone else’s need and then switching to universalise it. 

As if there is some kind of shortage of mattering. As if there is something unfair in noticing someone else’s suffering.

An answer, a solution to this can be found in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we had as our first reading. It comes towards the end of the reading after Paul has laid out the presenting issues,  and then he comes in with a typical major statement:

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

It’s the sort of sentence from Paul that we are so used to hearing that we hardly notice it.

And yet it’s the heart of the gospel. 

It’s the revolution that is fundamental to conversion. 

We are no longer the centre of our universe. 

Jesus is.

When we are resentful it is from a position of self-centredness; it is claiming I deserve that; that’s mine; don’t take it from me.

When we don’t live to ourselves; when Jesus is the centre of our universe we realise that we are connected in him with everyone; Black lives matter because there is no longer me and them; there is simply us.

So how do you feel about Black Lives Matter?

I want to suggest a practical thing that we could all do to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter in our churches. It isn’t a revolution; it may appear at first to be a very shallow thing. But doing it can have a powerful effect on us.

So in my sermon available to the whole diocese today online in the Church At Home material I am suggesting that we go into all our churches including this cathedral church

and list all the pictures of all the people that you can see.

Perhaps its the clergy team photos, or the PCC members, list them;

then go on to the pictures, in the stained glass windows, banners and other pictures. Then do the same for church websites.

Now add up the people of colour we can see. 

***

Because of my time working with so many black people I have a large number of pictures of black saints, black heroes, and images of Jesus, Mary and others as black people. here are two of my favourites. The first is based on a famous icon of the story of Genesis where Abraham meets three angels or lords. It is often called the Trinity and seen as an image of the way Christians understand God to be. here the artist Meg Wroe has painted a version with the faces of three people from the diocese of Southwark on it. The original is in Southwark Cathedral and is, I think rather beautiful.

Meg Wroe

The other two are by Yvonne Bell an artist who worships in our diocese at Winslow  in Buckinghamshire. Christ of the Flowers, and Mother of God of Clemency.

When I moved here to Christ Church a few weeks ago 

among the removal team were two young black men. 

As they packed my collection of pictures and icons they were beside themselves at all the black images. It sparked long conversations with them as we worked about race, Black Lives Matter, faith and their own experiences of racism and church. It was a very beautiful conversation.

For Christians, working for justice is not about fairness. It is about God revealing himself.

Right at the start of revelation in Genesis we are told that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Every human being is a revelation to us of God. Our reaction to every human being needs to be awe, wonder and reverence. 

We can depict Jesus as black, not because he was of African origin but because God reveals himself to us in every person.

Imagine if every church in our diocese had images of black and minority ethnic people in it. If every website included images of non-white people.

this is especially important in areas (like rural Staffordshire where I’ve been living for the last few years)

where no black people live.

I have been talking often in my first week about that little carving of the listener above the Sub Dean’s stall.  

Paying attention to Black Lives Matter, to the young in their yearning for justice is to show our love for them, show that we receive the image of God in them.

To make this building a home for all people is to make it a place where everyone can walk in and find themselves here, see themselves in the images, experience the divine in the holy women and holy men of the past, women and men of all races and nations.

Once we live God-centred lives we realise our true equality. As St Paul says at the very end of the first reading “We will all stand before the judgement seat of God.”

Thank fully God’s judgement is merciful and for that mercy “every tongue shall give praise to God.”

Because

“We do not live to ourselves,

and we do not die to ourselves.”

Canvas prints, commissions and cards of icons by Yvonne Bell cans be purchased via her website here.

An immensity of waters: chanting the whole psalter in a day

“As we move from late antiquity toward the Middle Ages, more complex Latin syntheses of these originally Eastern elements emerge. The simplest of these can be found in Irish monastic sources, which reached their most developed form in the traditions and texts of the Céli Dé or Culdees. While the Apophthegmata include stories of monks heroically reciting all 150 psalms, the Irish texts seem to make this the daily responsibility of every monk, to be completed in “three fifties” along with other texts, such as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12). One finds Irish liturgical offices in which the three fifties form part of an even larger course of daily psalmody, but more often the recita- tion seems more like an expiatory exercise for the individual monk, to be combined with other ascetic practices such as holding up the hands for long periods, numerous genuflections or prostrations, repeated blows with a scourge, fasting, exposure to harsh weather conditions, and so on. Similar practices are prescribed in some of the Irish penitentials.”31 

Jeffery, P. (2020). Psalmody and Prayer in Early Monasticism. In A. Beach & I. Cochelin (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West (pp. 112-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“A reform movement influential from 750 – 900 required even a secular cleric to recite all the psalms every day”

van Heusen, Nancy. The Place of the Psalms in the Intellectual Culture of the Middle Ages (p60)

Keeping a journal has never been part of my life except on retreat and I now have quite a set of these notebooks recording most of the retreats I have made in my adult life. I usually bring all or some of my previous journals with me. In 1997 I was not far from where I am now in north Wales. Also in a borrowed cottage, on the Llyn Peninsula. RS Thomas and Jim Cotter country. On one day then I wrote in my journal: “150 psalms prayed, 3 hours 55 minutes”.

The psalms are extraordinary. There is never a day when I not only pray a substantial portion of psalmody but also spend a little time reading commentaries or devotional guides or expositions of the psalms. Most importantly the expositions on the psalms of Saint Augustine of Hippo.

The Celtic saints are renowned for their ascetic practices and the recitation of the psalter is often among those quoted. A Facebook request brought fascinating material on the idea of reciting the whole psalter daily. St Benedict refers to this (Chapter 18) in his Rule:

“We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week.”

Beginning a new ministry at Christ Church, Oxford I am drawn to St Frideswide, patron of Oxford whose shrine is in the Cathedral and where, soon I shall be praying daily. The loan of a stunning icon of her for me to bring with me on retreat (see above) has reinforced that sense of connection. She may well be a link to those Celtic saints not just in time but possibly in her own origins.

There is something extreme about the effort to pray the whole psalter in a day that appeals to me. The effort to do something heroic even if only in a minor way. So I had been planning on doing this for a while. I had, in fact decided to divide the psalms across 15 hours starting at 4:30am and reciting a group of psalms beginning at each half hour throughout the day. However, when I read about the Céli Dé and their practice of three-fifties I changed my mind.

The length of the entire psalter is interesting. It is best measured in words rather than verses or psalms. In the Hebrew there are just 30,147 words. In English the BCP/Coverdale psalter has 48, 417 words. Common Worship comes in at 45,375 and my favourite translation of the psalms, the Grail version, at 42,621. I would love to know how many are in the defunct ICEL translation of the late 1990s which deliberately tried a sparser vocabulary to be closer to the Hebrew. But I haven’t been able to find an electronic version (do let me know if you have one). It is a beautiful translation which I use occasionally, although it lacks the lovely rhythmic patterns of the Grail.

Singing is an essential part of prayer for me. So I decided to use the Conception psalm tones which are designed to be sung with stanzas of varying lengths. I had thought about use a setting of the Grail psalter to the traditional plainsong tones but I would need to play those over on my recorder to get them anywhere near right and that would have added time. They are also rather slower to sing than the Conception tones which really draw out the sprung rhythm that the translators deliberately sought.

Beginning the three fifties at 4:30am, 1:30pm and 6:30pm I was surprised that they are remarkably similar in length (14,126; 14,480; and 14,015 words respectively). They also took a remarkably similar length of time to sing, between one hour and fifty and one hour and fifty-five minutes. A lot longer than my younger self; perhaps I hurried then, I certainly must have recited not sung the psalms to have done it in such a time. This time I didn’t hurry but I went at a good pace and there were no pauses or silences. I prayed Mass and Compline but otherwise didn’t pray any other Offices or texts.

Praying the psalms daily I know them well and so I was not expecting the powerful effect that praying them all in one go would have on me. I am particularly taken with a scholarly approach to studying the psalms that takes the canonical form of the psalter seriously. At one time genre criticism concentrated on what category each psalm belongs in (lament, royal etc). More recently reception criticism particularly in the work of Sue Gillingham has looked at their use and reception in different communities and contexts. Canonical criticism takes the work of the final editors very seriously. Why did they place the psalms in this order and in these relationships to one another. Although I knew much of that intellectually, the praying of them all in one day makes those patterns very interesting indeed. Psalm 119 in the final of the fifties both referred back to where I had begun with its wisdom and torah; and feels like an assimilation of the surge of varied experiences, emotions depths and heights described in the preceding psalms. The royal psalms, if anything, diminish by their relationship to the wisdom tradition; it is royalty firmly in its place. The psalms of ascent are truly an ascent; like the last leg of climbing mountain after a long preceding climb. I was tired, my voice was tired. And then the view at the top of the mountain. The wonderful psalms of praise the climax, the big sky moment. These psalms are normally associated with the morning so praying them in the dark increased the disorientation.

Throughout the singing I was struck by Brueggeman’s description of the process of orientation – disorientation- reorientation. Singing the psalms in this unfamiliar way, in an unfamiliar place, at unfamiliar times. At times it felt like I was losing my footing.The experience to which I can most easily compare it is the one occasion when, as a teenager on some outward bounds type week, I went white water rafting (coincidentally also here in Wales on the Wye). It was probably pretty tame really but I remember that sense of being almost out of control; the river carrying me; not being able to stop. And the exhilaration.

Extreme acts of piety do appeal to me. But I am not insane. I am not suggesting that any of us could adopt this as a regular practice. But I would like to think that I might make this an annual practice. Often people say to me that they don’t really know what to do on retreat. Spending one day doing this would be a fascinating process. I hope as exhilarating and spiritually enervating as it has been for me.

It has made me wonder about moving to more frequent recitation of the psalms in my prayer. I have always suggested that a month / four weeks (as in the BCP and in the Roman Divine Office) is the longest appropriate period for praying the psalms. I am now wondering if I could develop a weekly cycle for the whole psalter at Vigils. Many of my friends use the weekly cycle of the Anglican Breviary for their prayers and find it deeply satisfying.

Today, I went to the beach. With mountains around me and the waves crashing in a psalm is the only possible response:

The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,

the Lord on the immensity of the waters;

the voice of the Lord, full of power,

the voice of the Lord, full of splendour.