Interim Organist Required

I am taking a sabbatical! More about that later. In the meantime:

St. Andrew’s Leytonstone is looking for an Interim Organist and Choir Director to cover a one year sabbatical by our current Director of Music. The successful applicant will be a skilled and passionate musician, who will be able to direct and accompany a small amateur robed choir in sacred music. The church has an extremely fine three manual Lewis organ which has recently had the bellows re-leathered.

The role will be predominantly limited to Sundays 9am-11.30am (9.15am Choir Practice for 30 minutes, with a Eucharist at 10am) but will also include other important Church services, such as at Christmas, on Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week and other services by agreement. There will also be the opportunity to play at baptisms, weddings and funerals by private arrangement and the organist will have first refusal for all of these services. Appropriate Fees for these pastoral offices will be discussed with the successful candidate before being set for the year in September, 2016.

Fee £30-£60 per service depending on experience with additional payment for services during Christmas, Easter etc. 

Enhanced DBS Disclosure will be required. We are seeking someone who will be able to start in September, 2016, although an August start may be possible by arrangement. 

For further information please contact the Church Warden, Ian Burns by email: ian.brns@yahoo.co.uk

Interested applicants are asked to email a brief covering letter explaining why they wish to apply for the post and how their skills may fit with this post, attach an up to date CV and include the details of two referees, by the end of Monday 4 July, 2016 to: Ian Burns (ian.brns@yahoo.co.uk). 

Shortlisted candidates will be notified by email by the end of Thursday 7 July, 2016. 

Interviews will be held at St. Andrew’s Church on Thursday 14 July, 2016 at 7pm. 

For more information about St. Andrew’s please consult our website:

http://www.standrewsleytonstone.org

Church growth or consolidation?

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a parent in a fairly middle-class suburban family. You managed to get through university and find a spouse and a job and have some kids, and you’re settling down, after a fashion. You find a neighbourhood you can just about afford to buy in, perhaps with help from your parents, with schools that are probably going to be okay… and you move there, and you work all the hours you can, as does your spouse, because that’s what’s required if you’re going to have a decent standard of living.

You were brought up going to church but you drifted away in your teens and while you were at university, and didn’t really go back while you were in those limbo years of moving around from one shared house to the next, trying to save up for a deposit. But now it seems important. You want your kids to grow up with the sort of community support you had, and you’ve grown up enough to realise that avoiding God forever isn’t going to work, and so you look around at your local churches. There are loads of them, so there’s no need to commute.

They’re all struggling — but what church isn’t, these days? — but eventually you settle for one, St Whosit’s, that seems to have people who are sortof friendly, and worship that is orderly and predictable. It’s a little off the beaten track and doesn’t get as much passing traffic as the church near the station. The congregation is on the small side with forty people on average, the service sheets are old and tatty and someone decided printing small black text on deep purple would be a good idea, the heating is completely inadequate and the lighting isn’t much better… but the vicar seems nice and is always ready to listen to you. So you come to church for a while and you have your two children baptised and when they’re old enough you start bringing them to Sunday School.

The Sunday School at St Whosit’s is also small, and has been run by the same two volunteers for thirty years. After a while someone asks you to stand for the PCC so you do that: you’re not sure if this is what God wants you to do, but it’s certainly needed. And you find out that there’s no limit to the amount of work that needs doing, and the church just doesn’t have the resources to do most of it. The vicar is part-time already, there isn’t a parish administrator, there are no associate priests or other sorts around to cover services even. You’re the only person your age making a significant contribution, because most other people your age don’t even have your resources; the other people who are running things are mostly retired. There used to be a youth group but it sortof collapsed, and you can see that if this doesn’t change your kids will probably want to stop coming to church at some point.

You’re pretty busy with work and your kids have started going to school and having all the extracurricular activities, and the homework, which go along with that, and you can’t afford to pay for childcare much; you end up juggling late hours with your spouse and it’s all really hard work. You’re constantly exhausted, but you hope it’ll get better as the kids get older and more independent. So you keep pouring your own time and energy into St Whosit’s, even though you’re really tired, and the little arguments and difficulties along the way start to feel personal. Some of your favourite people, the ones who were most welcoming and friendly, die or move away, and you start to feel even more lonely. The vicar retires, everyone has to step up and do a bit more, and it’s tiring and discouraging; but you hang in there because it might get better. The diocese decides to change the nature of your priest-in-charge from half-stipendiary to house-for-duty, and everyone feels unhappy about it, but the position is filled and it looks like things will improve. The new vicar is very different and some things change, but it still feels like you’re on a treadmill, running running running all the time. The Parish Share goes up instead of down for some administrative reason that isn’t clear to you, so the “extra” resources you thought you’d have in exchange for your new vicar not working as many hours don’t exist. (In actual fact, your new house-for-duty vicar works far more than their designated “Sunday plus twenty hours” or whatever is in their working agreement.) Then the roof starts to leak. Maybe your parish is merged with another, better-resourced parish: but they feel under-resourced themselves and working together goes very slowly, it mostly feels like adding another layer of complexity for very little access to new resources. The Bishop keeps talking about how there’s a shortage of priests and we need more lay ministry in future, but you can’t figure out where this army of lay volunteers is going to come from.

You start to wonder why you go to church at all: it just feels like work to you now, and like nothing you do at St Whosit’s makes any difference to anyone, never mind God. The only answer you find is that it would let everyone else down if you quit. You start to wonder where you can find solace, where you can connect with God. But you don’t want to just walk away, and you definitely don’t want to move your kids to another church without good reason.

One lunchtime you go to a sung Eucharist at a cathedral. The greeters are friendly but anonymous; the liturgy is superb; there is evidence of the church community making a real difference locally, with pictures and information boards about night shelters or soup kitchens or other obvious outreach. The preaching is top-notch and speaks to you in a way you haven’t felt spoken to for ages (mostly because you’ve been out in Sunday School during the sermons and not heard them). You feel like the money you put in the little yellow Gift Aid envelope is going to a good cause. You feel like what you contribute makes a difference to something bigger than yourself. You feel safe crying here, with sorrow or with joy. It feels… good, and right, to listen to God in this place. So you keep going back, and eventually decide that, despite the commute, you’ll drag your kids along to this place on Sunday mornings. They make new friends and maybe sometimes it’s a bit anonymous but at least everything isn’t such a struggle all the time.

Or maybe one evening you go to an “informal” service at a charismatic evangelical church a few miles away. It’s too far to walk, and as it turns out, it’s huge. You’re not sure you get on with the worship band, and the way the place is full of well-off white people who all look the same is a bit weird after the more diverse congregation at St Whosit’s, but something about the way these people pray for one another is compelling, not really your cup of tea but it feels genuine. And they’re very friendly, without even a whiff of asking you to be on a rota, and it’s full of people who are a bit younger than you. Eventually you find out they have a ‘formal’ service earlier on Sunday mornings, which has more people your age (and quite a few who are older); it’s a bit strange, but lets you sing a hymn or two. And everyone is so friendly, and the provision for children is excellent — a huge Sunday School with different classes and they have things like a sensory room for people who need quiet space, but also there’s a good follow-on for young adults, teenagers who feel like they are too old for Sunday School but don’t necessarily want to go sit with their parents. And they’re friendly: did I mention how friendly everyone is? So friendly. So maybe you start bringing your kids here, and they make new friends, and it isn’t perfect but at least it isn’t such a struggle all the time.

St Whosit’s is a sort of amalgam of many churches I know. These churches run on a shoestring, and often have few resources. Their volunteers are drawn from the small pool of those who have time: mostly people who have retired. They tend to underpay any staff they do have. Because of their size they don’t tend to get curates, so new clergy aren’t really being trained in how to minister in their contexts. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult for them to attract many new members! I think this is because both the short-term and long-term experience of people who did not grow up going to that church is negative and tiring and frustrating rather than life-giving, and the people who grew up going there don’t see any reason to change (or don’t think they can afford to spend the resources required for changes). When they do grow, it’s because there are people there who are able to form friendships with newcomers despite all the other stuff; or perhaps because of some localised baby boom.

Larger churches tend to employ more staff, part-time and full-time. They can also draw from a much larger pool of volunteers, with a wider range of skills. They are large enough to “deserve” a curate from time to time, which means that new clergy get on-the-job training in their sorts of context. If there’s nobody there who will form some kind of enduring relationship with newcomers, they’ll flounder eventually, but the initial experience is often much better, perhaps good enough to keep numbers up even when people leave. (I don’t know of statistics on who leaves these larger churches and why.)

Statistics from 2014 show that attendance at cathedrals has been growing in recent decades, as has that at churches which manage a long list of activities which would be far beyond the means of St Whosit’s. But “The vast majority of converts come from other Christian denominations, rather than non-Christians or people with no religion.” I would be uttery unsurprised to find out that the vast majority of church growth isn’t even due to people from other Christian denominations, but from other parts of the Church of England.

I respectfully submit that the growth we see in larger, better-resourced churches is not due to their success at evangelism but due to a consolidation effect where people who were going to go to church anyway go to the ones that are better-resourced and less frustrating. That consolidation is directly linked to the economic shifts of the last 50-ish years: away from a large swathe of middle-class families where one parent has a paid job and the other doesn’t, toward a much smaller middle-class where people are scrambling a lot more and, in families with two parents, both of them will have jobs.

What I don’t know is how to respond to it.

Hail, Lady, Sea-Star Bright

I was pleased to participate in the Old Hispanic Office project as one of twenty composers selected to attend workshops with Bristol Cathedral Choir, the choir of Christ Church Oxford, and the Kokoro Ensemble as part of the project.

I have been fond of the Ave maris stella text since studying it for an improvisation class while at Trinity College of Music, but it is also relevant to this project because of the long association between Bristol and the sea. Some of the tombs in the Lady Chapel in Bristol Cathedral are in ‘stellate’ recesses and it was while looking at these that I thought this would be an appropriate text; I was pleased to then find that it was in the manuscript.

However, I didn’t only want to set a Latin text. I chose a translation by Herebert which I found at Clerk of Oxford’s blog because at the time that the Old Hispanic Office manuscripts were in use, Spanish was beginning to develop out of various Latin and other dialects. I imagine Latin would have been understood, but it might have sounded slightly strange and archaic; using an older English text recreates this effect. Unfortunately the Herebert is old enough that it doesn’t quite make sense on first hearing and so I asked Eleanor Parker if I could use her translation: this is still slightly archaic as she has kept some of the older words, but is likely to be more understandable by a modern congregation than Herebert’s earlier version.

Looking at the manuscript I could see that there was not much variation from one verse to the next in terms of the musical notation. There are a few substitutions of symbols, but it follows the same basic four-line pattern throughout. Of course there is no pitch or intervallic information there, so I had to make that up, but there is some internal consistency in terms of what the shapes are and the melody I used. I chose a minor mode with a major sixth because the Roman chant for the Ave maris stella uses it and I wanted to allude to that. The manuscript doesn’t have any rhythmic information either, so I decided to use rhythmic development to explore different ways it might have been interpreted, starting with a very plain section, almost free-rhythm, then moving to a more regular 6/8 feel, and by the middle verse overlaying the English and Latin texts and using a more intricate rhythm. This process is reversed in the last three verses, and the leading voices switched, resulting in a structure reminiscent of the cathedral arches.

I’m pleased to say that the .pdf and .midi files are available on the Choral Public Domain Library, as usual. If you prefer a hard copy you can buy one from my Lulu shop. In either case, the music is under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license, which means you can photocopy it, record it and charge money for the recordings, filk it, use it as the background to your music video, write it out by hand and send it across the sea in old wine bottles, or distribute it in any other way you wish: but you must attribute the creator (that’s me, and also Eleanor Parker), and you must share any derivative works under a similar license.

My main income from composing is from crowdfunded patronage, but there are other ways to support me if you’d like to.

Trisagion chant

This one was written at the request of Fr Jack. He asked me, “Can the choir sing the Trisagion as we enter the church on Good Friday?”

I said I’d see what I could do. We didn’t have much time to rehearse, so it needed to be something simple, especially as I never know quite how many voices I’ll have during Holy Week.

There may be other settings of this that are better, but this is what we used this year, and it worked pretty well.

Trisagion (Good Friday) PDF

Sheet music with the words, "Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal, have mercy on us."

My setting of the Trisagion

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

So here it is, under CC by-SA as usual so you can use it if you like.

 

Barking

A few months ago I was having one of those journeys home where I end up at Barking station for half an hour, having just missed the Overground train heading north west.  I asked Twitter for hymn texts, and David Barton suggested this one by Anna Laetitia Waring:

In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear.
And safe in such confiding, for nothing changes here.
The storm may roar without me, my heart may low be laid,
But God is round about me, and can I be dismayed?

Wherever He may guide me, no want shall turn me back.
My Shepherd is beside me, and nothing can I lack.
His wisdom ever waking, His sight is never dim.
He knows the way He’s taking, and I will walk with Him.

Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen.
Bright skies will soon be over me, where darkest clouds have been.
My hope I cannot measure, my path to life is free.
My Saviour has my treasure, and He will walk with me.

So, I set it; and I called it ‘Barking’ because that’s where I was when I wrote the tune. I was thinking of calling it ‘Barton’ for David, but there are several hymn tunes with that name already.

I’ve uploaded it to the Choral Public Domain Library as usual — it may not be visible to non-members until tomorrow or the next day, of course. So you can also download the .pdf here or play the mp3 below. I’m afraid it’s just the robot piano again though!

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you can print it, sing it, record it, filk it, sell it, give it away for free, and so on, without having to ask my permission or pay me any royalties — but you must attribute me and you must share any resulting works using a similar license.

My work is community supported, not commercially supported. If you like my music, please consider supporting me by becoming a patron or in some other way. Thanks so much!

Sonnet 27

Trilhas estreladas

The Fourth Choir had a composing competition, which I entered. I didn’t make their shortlist, so here is my setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27.

Sorry: just robots so far, though I will look into a proper demo recording of this one.

The words, of course:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

You can buy a printed copy from Lulu, or you can download .pdf, .midi or the above .mp3 from the Choral Public Domain Library. No matter which method you choose you can make as many copies as you like.

If you like this work, please consider becoming a patron.

“Moses saw a burning bush while he was out tending sheep and you won’t believe what happened next!”

Sermon at Evensong, St Paul’s Woldingham, Sunday next before Lent
Exodus 3:1-6
John 12:27-36

“Walk while you have the light.” What does it mean to walk in light? What does it mean to stand on holy ground?

It was the light that Moses would have seen first, so bright, and unending as the burning bush didn’t burn. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition it’s called the “unburnt bush”: and the angel of the Lord that appears to Moses in the bush, the fire that Moses sees, are interpreted not as temporary miracles, there for a moment, but as a glimpse of the truth of God.

What an odd thing to happen to a shepherd. Moses wasn’t out in the wilderness looking for holy ground. He also wasn’t looking for trouble: far from it! He was there because he was an outlaw: he was brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s court, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave he got angry and thumped him. Thumped him a little too hard, perhaps: he struck the Egyptian dead. So, he ran away to Midian to escape the punishment due. He settled down there and got married, but he was a fugitive, a refugee, maybe looking for a quiet life and trying to leave the persecution of his people behind him.

And then he sees this bush and goes to check it out and hears this voice calling his name, “Moses, Moses.” Tonight we heard him answer “Here I am” and we are told God spoke some impressive introductory words, but what follows is daunting. He is to go back to Egypt, where he’s wanted as a criminal, and make Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go. It’s a tall order, but he does it – and goes on to receive the Law given by God to those same people.

I think it’s interesting that an outlaw receives the Law, and that rather than being punished by God for having done wrong, his anger at the injustice shown to his people is turned toward the purpose of securing their freedom. It can be an important thing to keep in mind when trying to learn what God wants us to do, too. If there is an issue that you are passionate about, something which really gets you riled up, it might be worth exploring whether God is calling you to do something about it. For the record, I don’t recommend killing any Egyptians, or anyone else! But it’s also good to remember that the things you see as faults or mistakes, the things that make you want to run away into the wilderness and hide, may be part of your vocation too: they certainly won’t prevent God working through and in your life.

A calling that suits your personality still isn’t always going to be easy, of course. I’m sure that Moses, after a relatively affluent upbringing, wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable journeying through the wilderness for the rest of his life, but that’s exactly what he does after the Hebrew people are chased out of Egypt. The discomfort and unease of responding to God’s call is also obvious in tonight’s Gospel reading. Jesus’s heart is troubled. He’s upset. Of course he’s upset: he’s going to be crucified.

We started this reading halfway through a speech, so let’s look at the background and see if we can make sense of it. Jesus and the disciples have been travelling and now they’re in Jerusalem, and things have been… pretty weird, really. On the way to Jerusalem, at Bethany, there was that thing where Mary anointed Jesus with the expensive ointment, and Jesus said she bought it to use at his burial. There was that procession into Jerusalem itself, where people were hailing him as the Son of David, the King of Israel.

The disciples are, understandably, getting a bit confused. And then these Greeks turn up: they aren’t even Jewish but they’re in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, along with the other “God-fearers” who like to worship the God of Abraham and Jacob but don’t go through the process of becoming full members of the people of Israel. But they say to Philip that they want to see Jesus. So, Philip tells Andrew and the two of them go to tell Jesus and he starts talking about all this weird stuff again: about how the hour has come, about the grain of wheat that must fall to the ground and die. He says that whoever loves their life will lose it. He says that those who serve him must follow him.

And then we pick up where our reading starts: he tells Philip and Andrew, and the crowd that are there, this is what he has come for. There isn’t any getting out of it. His death will be to glorify God.

The voice from heaven that follows is confusing, too. Maybe the disciples aren’t so surprised by it, it’s happened twice before, once at His baptism and once at the Transfiguration. The crowd are just confused, though, not sure whether it’s thunder or an angel or what. And Jesus just tells them it’s for their good not his, and goes on talking about his death, and about judgement. The people still don’t really get it. How can the Messiah die? That isn’t what they understand of the Saviour who is meant to come and rescue them from the occupying Roman forces. How can the one anointed to crush their enemies be put to death on a cross? Who is this Son of Man, anyway?

The crowd doesn’t get a straightforward answer and neither, in this reading, do we. There is just the instruction to walk in the light – almost as if trying to outrun a sunset. Walk in the light now and believe in it so that you may become children of light.

We have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight and scholarship to help us understand what happens next and where Jesus is going. We can read about the events that followed, about the Cross and Passion and Resurrection – and in the coming weeks of Lent and Easter we will do exactly that. It’s all a bit easier to take when you know there’s a happy ending!

But to walk in the light of Christ, to truly serve Him, means more than simply skipping the parts of the Gospel narrative, or those parts of our own lives, which make us uncomfortable. We don’t get to just jump ahead to the happier news of Christ’s resurrection. Instead we are called to follow Him, even when we aren’t quite sure what’s going on, and when we feel we are inadequate or unworthy.

This Lent, may we all follow Jesus, right to the foot of the Cross. Then we will indeed be standing on holy ground. Amen.

Sermon for Baptism of Christ, Year C

Sunday 10th January 2015 – St Andrew’s Leytonstone
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17,21-22

This morning we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We heard the main details of the event in our Gospel reading. It’s a good time to recall those details, but also to reflect on our own baptism and what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.

We talked about baptism at the Advent group, and in particular about the various reasons that parents might want to have their children “done”. We also discussed whether it is appropriate for baptisms to take place outside of the main service.

Imagine, if you will, the river Jordan. John the Baptist is going around preaching about repentance – in Greek, metanoia, or ‘turning’. And he is baptising people in the river. This is a rich symbol of a new start, a new direction for life. Immersion in water was already a Jewish ritual for purification. It was associated with God’s salvation: the waters of the great flood which Noach and his family escaped were to rid the world of wickedness; the waters of the Red Sea which the Hebrew people fled through during the escape from Egypt were not only the start of freedom from bondage, but the beginning of a new journey, being led by God. And of course, the cleansing properties of water are obvious and also symbolic.

Full immersion in a river is a dramatic act compared to the gentle sprinkling of water people receive when they are baptised at St Andrew’s and many other English churches. But whether your own baptism was by the most delicate of sprinkles, or involved a pool or even a river and a lot of dripping afterward, the idea of turning toward God is important.

For Christians, repentance and a fresh start are only part of the story. John the Baptist is preaching about repentance, but he also makes clear he is not the Messiah: he baptises with water, but one is coming who will baptise by fire and the Spirit. It’s a bit scary really: the idea of the Messiah sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and burning up the chaff in unquenchable fire, is quite a contrast with the idea of being re-born to new life after repentance!

I don’t claim to have a complete answer to what the fire means for us, but some of my favourite words from the Old Testament were in today’s reading from Isaiah:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.”
There’s that juxtaposition of water and fire again but this time with the assurance of, if not safety, at least survival. And something more: “I have called you by name, you are mine.”

God calls each and every one of us by name, and baptism is part of our response to that vocation.

Jesus is baptized in response to a vocation from God: and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. The reading from Acts suggests that the Holy Spirit is part of becoming Christian – which makes sense if you think of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit moving among the people as the start of the Church.

Christian baptism, then, is about repentance and new life, but it is also about becoming a member of the Church. The new life we receive at the re-birth of baptism is new life in Christ, and we live it out as members of the Body of Christ.

Whether or not we meet the people who are baptised here, they, like us, have a vocation as members of the church. And so part of our role must surely be to welcome them, and, like the apostles Peter and John, to pray for them. We are all siblings in Christ; we are all beloved children of God, waiting for the day when we too may hear a voice from heaven saying, “With you I am well pleased.”

Bicycles Change Lives

I’m increasing my cycling to 80 miles per week to improve my fitness.

As a way of staying motivated I have signed up for a charity sponsorship thing. Qhubeka is the African programme of World Bicycle Relief. They provide bicycles to children — many of whom would otherwise walk more than an hour each way to and from school. The bicycles are assembled locally. They are robust and durable, with standard parts that can be replaced when they do eventually wear out, and Qhubeka also have a bicycle mechanic training programme.

If I raise £350 sponsorship it will be enough for about three bicycles.

So far in January I’ve ridden 68 miles in six days. That’s not bad going, and I’m already starting to feel the physical effects, but I would like to be further ahead: there will be some days in January that I can’t manage, and I don’t want those to put me too far behind. It would also be good to be able to take the odd day off when the weather is truly foul or I’m very tired or very busy, too.

Sermon for St John the Evangelist, 2015

St Andrew’s Leytonstone
Exodus 33.7-11
Psalm 117
1 John 1
John 21.19b-end

Christmas is finally here – after all the preparation and planning during Advent and, if you’re a church musician, even beginning before then. For many, the biggest celebrations are all done and dusted now, whether that’s singing your heart out in church, exchanging gifts with loved ones, having a big roast dinner or all of these customs. Christ is born and in the coming days and weeks we hope to catch up on sleep, enjoy the leftovers, and let life get back to ‘normal’. But it isn’t quite normal yet, so many of us are looking back over the past year and reflecting on it, and resolving that this year, we’ll do better.

I know that when I make New Year’s resolutions, they can be pretty short-lived. “Write sermons well in advance” should perhaps be top of the list! But when I do manage to make a resolution and stick to it, I often find it’s because I have had an example. I’ve observed someone I admire, and tried to copy them somehow – to incorporate an aspect of their behaviour into my own, not just on a superficial level but really untangling what it is that is so positive and compelling, and then finding a way to weave that into the pattern of my own life and habits.

Whether or not you make New Year’s resolutions yourself, it’s a useful exercise to examine some of today’s readings and find out if there is anything relevant to our own lives.

Moses is certainly well-regarded. The people of Israel, at the point in our reading from Exodus today, are on a journey together through the wilderness, and Moses is their leader, so a certain amount of respect would be in order. This is the man who led them out of slavery in Egypt, after all – though sometimes the great rejoicing after passing through the Red Sea can seem very far away, and some of the people have their doubts about all this wandering about in the desert… but despite any of that uneasiness, Moses is still given respect. When he goes to the tent of meeting people notice, and stand waiting. When the pillar of cloud descends, people bow in reverence, and then Moses has this chat with God – or, rather, the Lord speaks to Moses. The reading we heard today describes God as speaking to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Surely, if there is something to admire and respect about Moses, it is this closeness to God, this holiness that comes from listening to God. Could there be a better New Year’s resolution?

But – how to attain holiness and closeness to God, exactly? Listening to God is important, but there’s more to it than that. The epistle gives us a hint about another part of it: we need to “confess our sins”. Great – we do that every Sunday – sorted! But there’s a deeper message here. We all mess up, and confession of our mistakes – those times we have turned away from God – is not just a matter of saying some special words and going through the motions, but being totally honest with ourselves and with God about what we have done wrong and the harm that we have caused. And, the epistle tells us, if we claim we already have fellowship with God, if we say we have not sinned, then we are lying. Sobering stuff. Clearly, closeness to God is not always going to feel comfortable. It might even be pretty embarrassing. But honesty works better than fantasy for resolutions, too: if I said I was going to run the London Marathon this spring without doing any training, you’d be quite right to laugh. It’s no good pretending I’m that kind of athlete: I have to start where I am, not where wishful thinking dictates I’d like to start, even where that is uncomfortable.

The Gospel reading today doesn’t appear to offer much more comfort. This is the end of the Gospel according to St John the Evangelist, whose feast day we celebrate today, and he writes to imply that he is, in fact, the “beloved disciple” – the one who was reclining close to Jesus at the Last Supper. But that revelation isn’t the only message of this reading: instead, we have Peter, getting told off again.

A bit of context might be helpful. This is the ending of the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection. They’ve eaten fish on the beach and he has just asked Peter three times, “do you love me?” and instructed him “feed my sheep.” And with that comes a warning, of a loss of autonomy through matyrdom, and one more command: “Follow me.” No wonder Peter is asking if this other guy – John – can do it instead! I can’t say I would be too happy about being informed I’d have a martyr’s death, either. The tradition that St John himself lived to a venerable old age suggests that, thankfully, not everyone is called to martyrdom. But the point is that Jesus doesn’t want Peter looking around for someone else to do the work, someone else to follow Jesus instead. Peter is given his task and then he is told to be obedient.

There you have it: three things to think about if you’re pondering some New Year’s resolutions: holiness, honesty, and obedience. Our resolutions, whether for a day, a week or a year, should be to a life of holiness, of listening to God as Moses did. They should be resolutions that are realistic, taking into account the messiness and messed-up-ness of our lives. They should be resolutions that are obedient, where we strive to do all that Christ asks of us.

That’s all rather daunting – but it is still Christmas, after all, and another text by St John the Evangelist tell us some truly good news. We heard it just the other day on Christmas morning: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

We don’t need to go and seek God in a tent of meeting, outside the camp: God came to meet us where we are, living with us as a real human baby, Jesus Emmanuel. We don’t need to worry that our mistakes will be held against us forever, no matter how embarrassing they are, because we have assurance that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven. We don’t need to worry about whether someone else might be more obedient or more worthy, and compete with one another to do (or not do) the tasks that Jesus calls us to do, because in Christ, we are all one body.

So, whether we are making New Year’s resolutions or just planning one breath at a time, let us pray in the words of St Richard of Chichester:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

Amen.