Sermon for All Souls

I did some preaching again yesterday, at a Choral Evensong for All Souls. The readings were Lamentations 3:17-26, 31-33 and 1 Peter 1:3-9, and this is roughly what I said:

All Saints this morning was a chance to celebrate all those who have illuminated the Christian faith for us. In contrast, this evening’s commemoration of All Souls is an opportunity for a quieter reflection, remembering those who have died.

Lament and grief can be uneasy in our culture. The “stiff upper lip” attitude of just getting on with life is always there…. and life does go on. Sometimes trying to get back to “normal”, whatever that is, after experiencing painful loss can be comforting, but sometimes it can compound a sense of isolation as we tell ourselves and others that yes, of course, we’re fine really. It may be true, or it may be very far from reality. Every grief is different.

We do need space in which we can grieve, places and communities where it is safe to give voice to our distress. We need the opportunity to lament and be honest about pain, even if sometimes we would rather avoid it.

The five chapters of the book of Lamentations are formal Hebrew poetry, probably written by the prophet Jeremiah, in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in around 587 BC. We get a small sample of the general tone at the beginning of our reading: “my soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is.” Strong stuff for the destruction of a city, but Jerusalem was more than just a city: it had the Temple, it was seen as the City of God. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness” doesn’t refer only to a physical home, though the people were made utterly destitute and leaders and authorities were sent into exile. It also refers to a spiritual bereavement: nobody had thought it possible for Jerusalem to fall. It was taken as evidence of God’s might and favour for Israel. So, its destruction was seen as a punishment by God. An entire way of life was gone. No wonder people lamented!

Yet in the midst of this total defeat, the poet-and-prophet has hope: in God’s mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. The central three verses of the book of Lamentations tell us that God does not abandon us for ever, that God will have compassion, that God does not willingly afflict people. We are left to work out for ourselves how that can be possible, how the Lord who allegedly loves us so dearly can take away so much. The book doesn’t end with resolution, but with a list of bitter complaints followed by a challenge: “Restore us to yourself!…unless you are angry with us beyond measure.” But even being willing to make such a demand requires the hope of an answer. Lament here is evidence of faith, not a failure of faith.

Given this need for lament, the second reading can seem almost too cheerful. The first letter of Peter, written to Christians exiled from Rome to various places in what is now Turkey, has a different audience and context. We don’t know the exact circumstances of these Christians, but it’s likely that they were subject to casual, unpredictable discrimination, being social outcasts and not really fitting in either in the communities they came from, or where they lived when the letter was written. It is clear that the letter is written to people who are in some kind of distress. Peter wastes no time in offering comfort, blessing God and saying: “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

This isn’t the desperate-but-sure, abstract hope Jeremiah clings to in Lamentations, insisting God will be merciful despite apparent evidence to the contrary. This is St Peter, the Rock, who walked and worked with Jesus, who denied him three times and wept. This is Peter who knew Jesus personally, saw him crucified, and ate fish with him on the beach after the resurrection. Peter writes to these Christians that in Christ’s resurrection lies their hope: not that they will never have any trials, troubles, pain or discomfort, but that in salvation through Christ, those trials do not have the last word. This is not a denial of whatever distress the exiled Christians are facing, but a transformation of it, just as the resurrection of Jesus transformed his death from the starkest loss imaginable to the ultimate hope.

This, says Peter, is the inheritance of the Christians he is writing to, and it cannot be destroyed or corrupted or contaminated. They inherit this living hope even though they have never met Jesus in person, never walked with him, or heard him speak or saw him heal anyone, never hauled straining nets onto a beach to eat fish with him. Why? Because they love him and believe in him.

The rest of the letter instructs these Christians about the earthly consequences of that love and belief: they are to live as God’s people, with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, to treat one another with love. They are to do this while waiting for the revelation of the last things, which they believed would be soon, possibly within their lifetime.

And this is our inheritance, too: not a promise that life will be easy, or that we will never be in pain or suffer loss or grief, but rather this: death does not have the last word. As evidence of this promise we have the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

In all honesty I don’t always find it easy to rejoice in that promise. When in the depths of despair, Christ’s resurrection can seem as abstract and far away as the insistence on God’s mercy in the book of Lamentations. It’s been a long time now since anyone I am close to has died, but I remember the feelings of intense sadness and abandonment. I’ve certainly had times when sorrow has threatened to overwhelm me, and rejoicing was simply not on the cards.

Yet somehow I do believe in the resurrection — not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that I will, and you will, and so too those we love who have already died. I don’t know much about the details, but I believe it. This is partly because at times when I have struggled with sadness, I have been supported by a community of people of faith, acting out St Peter’s advice, trying to live with holiness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, taking seriously the instruction to love one another. Rather than being somewhere that we need to put on a smiley face or keep a stiff upper lip – as if God mustn’t find out how cross we are – a church can and should provide that kind of support and care in situations of mourning and sorrow. When we allow space for lament, our lives can demonstrate the hope we share.

May we all show forth in our lives the living hope we have inherited in Jesus Christ; and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.

Sermon for Bible Sunday

I preached for the first time on Sunday evening, at St Mary’s Addington. The readings were Isaiah 55.1-11 and Luke 4.14-30. This is what I said:

Today is Bible Sunday, a chance to consider the place of Scripture in our lives as Christians.

In the Church of England much of our liturgy quotes the Bible directly. This service of sung Evensong doesn’t just have the two spoken readings, but at least three sung portions of the Bible: the psalms, and the two scriptural canticles of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. This evening, the introit and the anthem were also using words from Scripture. Even the responses are mostly derived from the Bible.

So the Bible is a great resource for prayer, not only where it contains direct instructions, but in recording the prayers of our predecessors in faith and allowing us to join in with the prayers of Mary, Simeon, and so many others.

But the Bible is more than a book to aid our prayers. This incredible collection of texts tells us about who God is, who we are, and the relationship we have with God.

In this evening’s first reading we hear the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, urging us to ‘hear, that your soul may live,’ and describing what will happen: the word of God shall not return empty, but shall accomplish God’s purpose.

That ‘word’ refers to the suffering servant of God, the Messiah figure of the preceding chapters of Isaiah’s writing: not the word-written-down, but the Word made flesh. We recognise that Word as a person, Jesus Christ — “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

In the reading from Luke’s gospel tonight we are told that Jesus himself had excellent knowledge of Scripture: good enough that his teaching in the synagogues of Galilee was praised by everyone. Synagogue means school – unlike the Temple, where sacrifices were offered, it was a place where people met to read, study and discuss Hebrew scriptures. So in tonight’s reading, we have the Word made flesh, studying the word of God! At the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus reads a portion of Isaiah. Then he stops, and tells his listeners that this has been fulfilled today in their hearing: the Saviour they have been told about is here, now.

Then Jesus gets quite critical, and his listeners don’t like that. They dislike it so much that they run him out of town and try to kill him and, somehow, he gets away. But that makes sense: Jesus has God’s purpose to fulfil, not only in the hearing of a small-town synagogue where he grew up, but for the whole world.

What is God’s purpose for Jesus? The passage he reads tells us:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

This is the message of our Bible. God sent Jesus to be good news. Jesus IS that Good News! This is why Mary sings the Magnificat, and why Simeon prays the words of the Nunc Dimittis: they recognise who Jesus is, and rejoice.
May we hear in the Bible the good news that Jesus is for us and for all people, and in response, may we rejoice, and follow Him.       Amen.

Jubilate Amen

Just a simple sleepy little piece, this — almost a hymn rather than an anthem, and almost not a hymn in that it straddles the line between describing worship and participating — to some words by Thomas Moore:

Hark! the vesper hymn is stealing
o’er the waters soft and clear;
nearer yet and nearer pealing
and now bursts upon the ear:
Jubilate amen!
Farther now, now farther stealing
soft it fades upon the ear:
Jubilate amen!

Now like moonlight waves retreating
to the shore, it dies along;
now like angry surges meeting
breaks the mingled tide of song:
Jubilate amen!
Hush! again, like waves retreating
to the shore, it dies along:
Jubilate amen!

It has a rather large range required but at least this time I haven’t scored the highest bits to be really quiet.

No recording yet so you’ll have to make do with MIDI robots and the .pdf, both available from the Choral Public Domain Library. As usual this is licensed under CC by-SA, which means you can use it for whatever you like as long as you attribute me and you share the results under a similar license.

If you like it, please tell other people about it, or become a patron at Patreon — even a little bit of help makes a big difference to me. Thanks so much.

Composer in Residence?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to continue building some kind of career as a composer of choral music, especially liturgical music. I do most of my publicity online, and church music is still a largely-offline world. I do love our small-but-mighty choir at St Andrew’s Leytonstone, but realistically, they can’t sing my SATB work, and the unison/two-part/flexible music I write for them is heard by very few people. I put my work online under a CC by-SA license, so anyone can use it for free, but they aren’t going to look for it if they don’t know it’s there.

Would your church like a composer-in-residence for six months?

I’d love to spend one day a week somewhere with more choral services, a more extensive choral programme, and exposure to a wider community. I could write some music especially for the choir(s) and congregation there, in consultation with the musical staff already in place, and some of my other work could be sung in services or concerts if appropriate.

What I can offer

  • The opportunity for your choir(s) to work with a living composer
  • works written especially for your choir(s)
  • publicity! regular tweeting and/or blogging about my experiences as a composer-in-residence and my impressions of the wider life of your church
  • something else? What would you like from me? I can direct choirs, sing alto or (if stuck) tenor, lead sung Compline… but I’d like my primary duties to be related to composing

What I need

  • A suitable church: preferably Anglican, with a strong choral tradition that extends beyond Sunday mornings
  • quiet-ish space to sit and compose, one weekday per week. Background noise in a community café is absolutely fine, background music really isn’t. I do most of my composing with paper and pencil so all I really need is a table I can write at, but occasional access to a plug and wi-fi or at least a spot with good mobile reception will help a lot with the twitter/blogging part of the residency
  • a Director of Music and clergy who will let me sit in on rehearsals and include me in the musical life of the church
  • performance of some of my work, either what I’m writing while in residence or stuff I’ve already written. You can hear examples at Soundcloud and most of my scores are on my works page
  • some flexibility: I have existing obligations at St Andrew’s Leytonstone and elsewhere, so Thursday evenings are just not a good option for me, and my Sunday mornings are going to be limited.
  • ideally, a location within 90 minutes on public transport from my home in East London; this could stretch a bit if I can stay overnight on one or the other side of my residency days
  • travel expenses (public transport)
  • lunch would be nice; accommodation and breakfast will be necessary if overnight stays are going to be involved
  • some sort of remuneration would also be good.

So, who pays for all this?

I’m not sure yet! If I can find a willing and suitable church, we could apply for some grants, or if you are up for it we could try crowdfunding. I’m in a position to be a little bit flexible about this — I already spend a day per week composing — so if your first thought is “we can’t afford that” then do speak to me anyway, maybe we can work something out.

If you’re interested, please do get in touch: artsyhonker at gmail dot com.

Sweet Spirit, Comfort Me

I wrote this in 2012 for a competition at St Paul’s. Clerical error on my part meant I wasn’t even in with a chance! But I am happy with what I wrote.

Thanks to Matthew Curtis I now have a recording on YouTube:

You can download the audio from Soundcloud and the sheet music from the Choral Public Domain Library.

In the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress,
And when I my sins confess,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When I lie within my bed,
Sick in heart and sick in head,
And with doubts discomforted,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

When the house doth sigh and weep,
And the world is drown’d in sleep,
Yet mine eyes the watch do keep,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

As usual, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, or CC BY-SA for short. That means you can use this music for any purpose, absolutely free, as long as you attribute me and you share any derivative works under a similar license. If you want to drop me an e-mail, tweet or comment letting me know that you’re going to sing it, that’s even better, of course: to my knowledge, it has not yet been performed. The range of this piece makes it quite challenging, but I hope the repetition makes it accessible even to audiences who are unaccustomed to this type of choral music.

If you want to support me in making more music like this, please tell at least one other person about this piece. If you want to do more than that, the equivalent of buying me a hot chocolate every time I write another work (about once a month), you could become a patron.

Pied Beauty — recording

@pmphillips suggested this text to me when I was looking for something a bit creation-y for a unison/2-part community songbook. I didn’t set it for that project, but instead in SATB. It’s short and sweet, and might be suitable for an introit at a Harvest Evensong or similar.

I’m pleased to be able to offer a demo recording of this, both at Soundcloud (where you can download the recording) and, below, via YouTube so you can follow along with the sheet music. The sheet music itself is available as a .pdf from the Choral Public Domain Library.

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

As usual I have chosen a CC BY-SA license for this work, which means you can use it, even for profit, but you must attribute the creators and you must use a similar license.

This piece is special as it’s the first one I was paid for composing, thanks to kind patrons at Patreon; though perhaps I should say “a kind patron” as it was when I’d only just started using Patreon and had only one patron. So, I was paid $3. Not a lot for the work I put in, really, but everyone has to start somewhere. If you’d like to support me writing more music like this please have a look at my support page.

And, of course, please do keep the text suggestions coming!

Passing Notes 2014-08

The August 2014 edition of Passing Notes is online.

The idea of this newsletter is that people who don’t want to subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter, but do want to be informed of musical developments, can subscribe. Roughly once a month you’ll get a sort of link soup with current projects, things I’ve released in the past month, plans for the next month, and some stuff I like. I might do a Christmas or Easter special, haven’t decided yet.

There is just one flesh we can wound

I am discouraged that it seems necessary to say “don’t kill Palestinians” or “don’t kill Christians in Iraq” or that there is outcry over the plight of the Yazidi. How about “Don’t kill people”? It isn’t the Palestinian identity, the Christian faith, the Yazidi culture that makes it important not to kill people: it is their humanity. I struggle to understand why this isn’t obvious, but apparently it is hard work, not killing people.

Of course, I know I’m tangled up in it too. It’s basically impossible not to be complicit in the arms trade, for example, or in industries that deny people food if they don’t happen to have money. I could try to separate myself from that sort of evil, but purity is maddeningly elusive. I’m simply not self-sufficient enough to not pay others for some of my food, clothing, shelter; and I cannot control how those other people spend or invest the money I give them in exchange for goods and services. Separation from evil isn’t really an option.

So, while I’d love to say that we who are “good” or “aware” or something could change the world by never investing in arms dealers, I don’t think we have that much control over indirect investment. That’s capitalism for you.

Capitalism and its money-is-power dynamic also means that the majority of the people in the world couldn’t be ethical consumers even if they wanted to. I’m reasonably privileged — white, educated, have always had a roof over my head and food on the table — and I would struggle just because of the time and effort involved. The reality is that for many, “ethical consumption” would mean not eating, not having shelter or clothing, not having access to medical care: most of the time the only options available happen to include some dodgy investments.

So: we are all complicit, to some degree, in the slaughter that’s going on today, and we can’t really separate ourselves from it by staying in a middle-class white Western cocoon and only spending money with the companies who manage to present their products as ethical or responsible. I’m not saying ethical consumption is of no use whatsoever: I just recognise it isn’t actually the whole solution.

That leaves us back at “How can we try and convince people not to kill other people?”

I don’t have an easy answer. I don’t even really have a difficult answer: not in a “Do thing X and result Y will follow” sort of way, not anything I can ask you to count on.

What I do have is a shred of a sliver of hope; a faint glimmer of light, the sort I can only see out of peripheral vision.

I have this hope that somehow, if we truly treat one another with compassion, it will be harder for people to kill one another. I hope that one person at a time, solidarity will make a difference. I hope that by learning to look for one another’s humanity we will see the similarities, the common cause, which we so often now overlook. I don’t mean wishy-washy being nice to one another, either. I mean concrete actions that heal the fearful and the wounded, challenge the powerful, comfort those who mourn, forgive the sinner, loose the bound. I mean visiting the sick and writing to prisoners and helping at the foodbank or shelter and giving to the Disasters Emergency Committee and writing to your MP and, yes, shopping ethically, but not because we think these things somehow mean we get a free pass but because we love other human beings, or what we see of good in them, so much that it’s worth doing all that and more. Jesus said “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do it to me” — and to me, that speaks partly of the inescapable interconnectedness I was writing about earlier, which means we are all complicit in systemic violence but also that we are all subject to the contagion of compassion.

I still love the way Hafiz said it:

I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men’s hands
even at the height of
their arc of

because we have finally realized
there is just one flesh

we can wound.

Christ Has No Body Now on Earth But Ours

I wrote this in 2009 for the Rev Dr Catherine Dowland Pillinger. Before she was ordained she was the Head of Student Services at Trinity College of Music. She was a great support to me while there, and I wanted to thank her in a way appropriate to her new role. I agonised over the text: I had no desire at that stage to call myself Christian, but I also saw clearly that her care for the students she supported was inseparable from her faith. She treated all of us as beloved children of God. For me, that changed everything.

St Mary’s Addington took a bit of a risk by letting me write for them; I didn’t have much other work to show them, I had no formal training in composition, and none of my other choral works had been sung in public. I suppose if I’d written something entirely unsuitable they would have found a way to let me down gently. And I did do plenty of  groundwork for this composition, not only taking great care with the text but attending rehearsals over a year in advance and even joining in with the choir for Evensong when I could.

I’m still rather glad I did.

Postcard 5

Over at Patreon I have a few different “rewards” for different levels of funding. The idea is to thank my patrons for their support, while also doing things that are musically useful or relevant. If you want to learn more about Patreon I’ve given a brief explanation.

For pledges of $3/work or more, if patrons disclose their postal address, I send a hand-drawn postcard with a short, unique melody by me on it. Here’s the fifth one:

This one is for @tall_rich, who I met through Twitter. I think he’s also a fan of some of my recordings on Bandcamp, and he’s always been quietly supportive.

I’ve taken a photograph because, in addition to sending them to people I want to thank for their support, I plan to use these melodies at some point; I haven’t yet decided whether to combine them into a larger piece somehow, or to take each one and expand on it, to form a multi-movement work or a collection of pieces. As with most of my work, these postcards are licensed with CC BY-SA, so if you want to use or modify the image or the music you are quite welcome to do so. Just make sure you attribute me, and release any derivative work under the same license.