Contextual busking

As I was walking to the church a few days ago, I heard from some distance the unmistakeable strains of ‘Hava Negila’ being played on brass instruments. As I came round the corner by the Saeima, the Parliament building, there they were – the buskers, playing to an audience chatting amongst themselves and listening to a guide telling them about Rīga’s landmark Three Brothers in Hebrew.


This has become part of the routine; there they always are, with their slightly battered euphonium and tuba, busking on the tourist trail; and the great thing about it is that they always pick up on languages spoken, and play the appropriate tune (God Save The Queen, The Marseillaise, Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit and so on). So from a couple of hundred yards away, I know who to expect on my way.


So this is contextual busking – music-making that connects with the audience, rather than just playing the same few pieces over and over. It certainly brings a smile to the tourists’ faces, as the strains of some familiar tune unexpectedly reach them.


Of course we contextualise all the time. We use language that is appropriate to the company we are with; we dress appropriately to the events or places we are going to; we put our thoughts and ideas in formats that are appropriate and understandable for the people we are talking to. So teachers explaining maths to a class of 7 year olds couch all they say in very different terms to a university lecturer, even if the basic truth of mathematical concepts does not change.

This has been rolling round in my mind for months now, since one of the regular spats I get into on social media with one of my more conservative (OK, more fundamentalist) brethren, who was insisting, as is often the case, that the Bible is different, and that it has a pure message independent of and uninterpreted by our contexts. This doesn’t work for me, nor for most people who read the Scriptures. For me, it is so blindingly obvious that we read the Bible as whole people, with our minds and perceptions formed by our lives and experiences, that I find it difficult to argue with those who believe that there is an entity that can be isolated and defined, the pure Biblical text, unalloyed, uninterpreted and unifocal. That does not mean that I don’t believe the Bible is true; quite the opposite. Indeed the truth of the Word of God is broader, wider and truer than we can possibly imagine, and each new generation that reads it, each new Christian who grows to love the Bible and really engages with it, adds a new layer of possibilities without ever exhausting the essential truth and grace and eternal, loving beauty that is the fundamental nature of God.

But the need to take context seriously was brought back to mind by an event last month, and a reading today.

July is the month when cemeteries all over Latvia hold ‘festivals’ (Kapu svētki); there’s a long and complex story behind this tradition, but in essence folk come together in their family homes and villages, tidy up and beautify their ancestors graves, and then attend a service at the cemetery (and in some places have something of a party graveside).


We went to our local festival, where the pastor led a service that was 1 hour and 15 minutes long; he quoted from the Enchiridion, a 16th century Pastor’s Handbook; and in essence, repeated over and over again that everyone who dies when not a faithful Christian goes to hell. Now this lengthy sermon was preached in a setting (context) where the vast majority of those lying at rest in the cemetery lived and died during Soviet times, and never heard the Gospel preached, never stood a chance of living a Christian life. Just imagine how you would feel if you were told over again that your much-loved mother, grandfather or brother is now suffering the torments of hell. No nuances, no hope, no kindness. This was an example of completely uncontextualized preaching, an interpretation of the Bible which left no space for grace or for God’s immeasurable love and power to act. Luckily, very few of the people in the cemetery stopped to listen to this tirade.

And today we remembered St Aidan, the Apostle to the Nortumbrians at our Evening Prayer at St Saviour’s.


We read from the Venerable Bede’s biographical sketch of this ancient, gentle bishop.

“It is said, that when King Oswald had asked a bishop of the Scots to administer the Word of faith to him and his nation, there was first sent to him another man of more harsh disposition, who, after preaching for some time to the English and meeting with no success, not being gladly heard by the people, returned home, and in an assembly of the elders reported, that he had not been able to do any good by his teaching to the nation to whom he had been sent, because they were intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition.

They then, it is said, held a council and seriously debated what was to be done, being desirous that the nation should obtain the, salvation it demanded, but grieving that they had not received the preacher sent to them. Then said Aidan, who was also present in the council, to the priest in question, “Methinks, brother, that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, conformably to the Apostolic rule, give them the milk of more easy doctrine, till, being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they should be capable of receiving that which is more perfect and of performing the higher precepts of God.”

Having heard these words, all present turned their attention to him and began diligently to weigh what he had said, and they decided that he was worthy to be made a bishop, and that he was the man who ought to be sent to instruct the unbelieving and unlearned; since he was found to be endued preeminently with the grace of discretion, which is the mother of the virtues. So they ordained him and sent him forth to preach; and, as time went on, his other virtues became apparent, as well as that temperate discretion which had marked him at first.”

This remarkable man, who died more than 1300 years ago, probably never used the word context. But he surely understood it.

Everlasting God,
You sent the gentle bishop Aidan to proclaim the gospel in [England];
Grant us to live as he taught
in simplicity, humility and love for the poor;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. AMEN. (Common Worship Collect for St Aidan)





Sunday 26 June 2016, referendum +3

This post is based on a sermon preached at St Saviour’s on Sunday 26 June.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It has been quite a week. Personally, along with many millions of others, I was up until almost 5am on Friday, watching the unbelievable results roll in on the Brexit referendum; and up again just a couple of hours later to watch the first reactions, as well as PM David Cameron’s resignation live on TV. For many people, the result was devastating; a former colleague of mine, now living and working in Germany compared the feeling on Friday to the Berlin wall coming down in reverse – in other words, it seemed as though walls are being rebuilt, and the sadness is comparable to the joy we all felt back in November 1989, when the wall of death in Germany began to be broken down.

The main problem for many people has been the poor quality of the debate. The Leave Campaign have now admitted that their headline slogan was a lie, basically. They said that  about 350 million GBP are being taken by the EU from Britain each week, which could be spent on the National Health Service if Britain leaves; and the very next day after the referendum, one of the leading campaigners, Nigel Farage, said it had been a ‘mistake to promise that’.

IDS bus
Iain Duncan-Smith, another leading campaigner, has also reneged on the promise

There has also been scaremongering from Remain, with the Chancellor, of all people, saying that households in Britain will be worse off by 4300 GBP – around 5000 EUR – per year after Brexit, with no credible statistics to back up his claim. “The first casualty when war comes is truth” – said Hiram Johnson, a US Senator during WWI.  Truth has certainly been an early casualty in this campaign.

But very worrying, too, has been the inability to hear and accept what experts are saying; in fact a disdain for and dismissiveness of expertise and knowledge. “When the facts met the myths they were useless”, said Nicholas Barrett, a political journalist.  People preferred to listen to vague, high sounding promises and soundbites.

The Church Times, the Church of England’s newspaper, wrote this week:

“The referendum debate has been a divisive, brutal, dehumanising, victimising, bitter experience, and at times not even a debate; but now that the campaign is over, the UK must learn from its mistakes, and move towards reconciliation and healing within communities, church voices across the UK have said.

“Primates, bishops, archdeacons, chaplains, and academics made their views clear this week on how the country — its people and Government — had conducted themselves throughout the campaign, and on what the next step should be both for the Church and communities across the UK.

The referendum debate had “unleashed a kind of monster” of extremes, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan said. The public attitude, and language used, had been “venomous and offensive”, and risked spreading “from words to actions”, such as the recent rioting at the Euros [Euro 2016 Football Championships – Ed]

The risk was particularly high on immigration, Dr Morgan said in an interview with the Western Mail this week. “There’s been so much venom spoken about immigrants and immigration that people have come to believe almost anything. People have jumped in on the immigration issue, forgetting that whether we stay or whether we leave will make no difference to 50 per cent of the immigrants of this country. . .

“Quite reasonable, rational people get really hot under the collar about immigration, forgetting that our health service would collapse without it, and that many of the immigrants are in fact holding excellent jobs as doctors, consultants and academics.” ”


Let us look back at what St Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians. There is a clear warning there: “15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

 But there is also a pointer to the way in which a debate might be conducted. Paul writes: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. […]. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

So, if as Christians we are filled with the Spirit, the fruit of that Spirit is love, and all those other lovely and love-filled characteristics follow. What Paul is not saying is that when we become Christians, we automatically become loving, patient, gentle and self-controlled, obviously and unfortunately. What Paul is saying is that as we live our Christian lives, the Spirit of Christ takes root in us, growing, flowering and eventually bringing fruit. As our psalm said today: “11 You show me the path of life.  In your presence there is fullness of joy;    in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.”

Against the rising tide of intolerance and hatred, racism, xenophobia, the polarisation between right and left which we are seeing, and not just in Europe, once again Christians are being called to be countercultural. The prophetic voice of the Church must be heard, speaking and living in a way that challenges ‘the monster of extremes’ that Archbishop Barry Morgan was speaking about. Or as St Paul said: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions; such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  Against this anger and intolerance, we speak and live in love, offering kindness and grace, being generous and gentle. That might sound weak, and a bit wishy-washy; but actually it isn’t. Walking against the flow is a struggle; living and speaking out against a growing culture of sheer nastiness is by no means easy.


What can we do? We are a small church here in Latvia, a small country; but maybe that’s what Elisha thought, when Elijah appeared out of the blue, and threw his mantle, his cape, over him.  What can God and his prophet possibly want with me, a ploughman? Why has Elijah appeared out of the blue, and called me to follow?

What can God possibly expect of St Saviour’s? We can’t save the world; we can’t save the European Union, obviously; but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do anything. We can, each of us, set our faces to walk with Jesus, wherever that walk takes us; and we can pray for the Spirit to work within us more and more, bringing the fruits of love not only to ourselves, but to our families, our friends, our neighbourhood, our city, our land. And if we are called to speak and live prophetically, as Elisha was called, we must do that, too.



Psalm 16

1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
2 I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.’

3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.

4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink-offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.

5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
8 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

11 You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.


1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21

15Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.

19 So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was ploughing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. 20He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’ 21He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.


Galatians 5.1, 13-25

51For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.


Luke 9.51-end

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’