The City of Love

So, now, faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and, of them, love is the greatest. (1 Cor 13:13, NTE)

A new Deacon Blue album is always a cause for celebration and their latest offering City of Love does not disappoint.  Ultimately it is a paean to love – a series of songs tCity of Lovehat celebrate love and that tell stories of love, not the sugary-sweet romantic love of so-many songs, but the love that is wrought and sharpened in the reality and struggle of everyday life. One of Ricky Ross’s strengths as a writer has been his ability to tell stories of ordinary people, stories which dignify others’ journeys and humanity, stories of broken people looking for meaning and redemption; stories of home, work and faith. These themes have dominated Ross’s output right from Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown and they run through this album.

Interestingly, Ross credits as one of his influences here a hymn he sung in his childhood, Away Far Beyond Jordan – “I always thought it had a poignancy to it, that part about ‘if you get there before I do, look out for me, for I’m coming too.’ It’s a simple childlike verse but I think it’s the hope that everyone has.”

In these difficult days, we are going to need an awful lot of faith, hope and love as we seek to negotiate the challenges that lie before us and Deacon Blue will be important companions for me.

There are a number of tracks that I am sure I will be returning to frequently, but it is the album’s finale, On Love, which is the one which has most captured my attention – The Big Issue described it as “a seven-minute sepia-toned daydream of autobiographical reveries on lost love.”  Half-spoken, half-sung it is a stream of consciousness recollection of seemingly disconnected events from Ross’s early life. The result is poignant and affecting, capturing that longing that we all have to be loved whilst hinting at the fact that the love we do experience is but an echo of the divine love which holds us through all things.

Love never had a reason before
So what d’ya wanna know
If it never had a reason before
What are you trying to make sense for.

Finally, do listen to this beautiful version of the album’s title track, City of Love, recorded in the Radio 2 Piano Room – it’s just sublime.  The song holds the experiences of the downtrodden, the exhausted and those looking for hope and ends with ends with the promise of the (eternal?) city of love where our brokenness is finally gathered up and held in love.

Lost the will for keeping on
Just as the winter is dragging
What can I do with all of this?
Where can I put what I’m carrying?

All that remains is the city of love
All that remains is the city of love
The city of love.

Balm for the Spirit

These are unsettling, uncertain and confusing times and as regular readers might expect, part of my coping mechanism has been music.  Surprisingly though it has been new music rather than the older familiar tunes, that has particularly helped me these past few days.

Take this tune for instance – We Are Not Alone composed by Pepper Choplin and sung by the wonderful Oasis Chorale.  I tripped over it on a Facebook feed I follow and I was totally captivated.  It was truly balm for the spirit – The beauty of the human voice, exquisite harmony, allied to the simple lyrics:

We are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.
We are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.

The Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition from which this comes is one that is dear to my heart; being part of a Mennonite congregation many years ago nurtured and shaped my faith at a formative time in my life.  One of the things I valued most about this tradition was the genuine lived out practice of community which is where, I believe, the fine Mennonite acapella tradition springs from.  As one of my friends put it, “Mennonite choirs do corporate acapella singing like no others.”

Of course, one of the challenges of this time is how to nurture such community in a time of social distancing and isolation.  And yet as the song puts it, “we [not I] am not alone. God is with us.”  And thankfully that remains as true today as it has always been.

Ash Wednesday Thoughts: Dust

I think that it is fair to say that Ash Wednesday does not figure particularly prominently in Baptist spirituality. There is a certain interest in the Day of Pancakes but Ash Wednesday tends to get neglected, which is a shame.

Ash Wednesday crossWhen we lived in London, I would try and take Ash Wednesday as a retreat day.  Often, I would end up going for a long walk in one of London’s parks, but the most important thing that I would day during the day and the thing that gave shape to the day was to go to St Martin-in-the-Fields, for their lunchtime Communion service including Imposition of the Ashes.

 

It is definitely not a very Baptist thing to do, but I always found the moment when the priest marked my forehead with a cross made from ash very moving.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

I have always found receiving this mark on my forehead a useful reminder of my mortality and of the transience of life, But more than that, it is a reminder that ‘I’ am not the centre of the world and that my life can only be truly understood within the great story that we tell each Easter. As such it serves as a sign that my life is bound up with and held by the One who is not dust, but whose purposes are everlasting.

This is all summed up rather beautifully in a poem I first came across on Ash Wednesday, 2015. I have walked with it, or rather it has walked with me, each Ash Wednesday since.

Ash Wednesday – Dust

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

From dust we came – you and I – from dust.
Dry, formless dust,
at the mercy of every whisper of wind.

Not of our choice did we take form,
not from desire
or power
or cleverness
or invention,
but by the hands of the one
who loves
and shapes
and forms
and holds the whole world in his hands.

His hands took the dust and moulded it
with loving care,
with creative excitement,
joyfully giving his breath to give us life.

But we are dust,
so easily forgetful of the giver and the gift;
restlessly seeking to fulfil ourselves every which way but in him;
capable of such destructiveness,
inflicting pain on others and ourselves.

God-forgetting,
we turn away – you and I –
from the one who is the sources of love and life for us,
and live our lives in dusty darkness.

But he does not forget the frailty of our dustiness,
and his loving mercies never come to an end.
He goes on calling us out of dusty darkness,
to live in the glorious light and hope of Christ.

So we,
remembering that God is God and we are not,
remembering what He can do with dust and we cannot,
remember today that we are dust,
and choose to turn our faces to the light,
with the hope of resurrection in our hearts.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Rachel Wigram for Ash Wednesday 2014

Thinking about music for today, I settled on this – The Benedictus from Karl Jenkins’ wonderful  The Armed Man: A mass for peace – 

I have found this piece intensely moving ever since I first heard it, but it also carries a memory.  Each year at Baptist Assembly, there is a moment when the names of each accredited Baptist minister who has died during the previous year is remembered and for a couple of years, this music was used as background.  Included were brothers and sisters who I had known, others whose names I had heard but whom I had never met and others who were unknown to me; yet in our common calling we shared a bond.

I guess also implicit in that time (for me at least), was the knowledge that one day my name would be named and that whatever was engaging my attention or gnawing away at my sub-conscious would also pass.

So we, remember today that we are dust, and choose to turn our faces to the light, with the hope of resurrection in our hearts.

Songs In The Key Of Life: Betrayal

“We called him a living saint. He was always up for a Nobel Prize for his work advocating for the dignity and care of people with disabilities … He was a spiritual hero of mine. I am heartbroken.” (@KatecBowler)

Around the world, ten thousand people in L’Arche communities live together with the truth that people with disabilities are our friends and teachers.  And that is, in large part, due to the life of Jean Vanier.  And yet an internal report by L’Arche published today has concluded  had concluded that Jean Vanier, the community’s founder, had sexually abused six women in France.  It is a story of spiritual and sexual abuse which sadly is far too common.  But Jean Vanier?

Vanier was an inspiration to my life, my ministry, my understanding of leadership and even of humanity.  And so today I find myself stunned, angry, disillusioned and even betrayed.  Of course, my feelings are insignificant compared to those who suffered at the one who was widely held up as a saint; I cannot even begin to imagine the silent pain they have carried for so many years.

Lord have mercy on Vanier’s victims and grant them comfort and healing … Lord have mercy on the L’Arche community and the wonderful work that they do .. Lord comfort those who have lived and worked with Vanier, who have loved and trusted him and who know discover he was not who they thought he was.

For me, this has been a day for wailing guitars and in particular two songs, one by U2 and one by Springsteen, faithful friends to me in times like this.

Love is Blindness comes from U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby! It is a song about deceit, infidelity and betrayal. Bono himself comments with words that seem strangely relevant:

“The song has images of terrorism, bomb-building, clockworks and cold steel, parked car. In a personal sense, I have observed the phenomenon of a person planting a kind of landmine that years later they will accidentally tread on and blow their lives to pieces. You can watch people doing it, willfully getting involved in actions they will pay a very heavy price for later. Trajectory is everything.”

A song of pain and angst and despair captured wonderfully by the Edge’s Wailing guitar.

The Ghost of Tom Joad began as the acoustic title track of Springsteen’s eleventh studio album released in 1995. Nineteen years later it appeared on Bruce’s album High Hopes featuring Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. Tom had played it live with Springsteen on numerous occasions and Morello had recorded the song himself.

The song is a cry against injustice and Morello’s solo captures the fury, frustration and anger that so many feel today.

Of course there are lots of questions, questions about how we measure the good and the evil in a person’s life, questions about the on-going value of Vanier’s writing, questions about the corrupting nature of power, especially spiritual power, but sometimes when answers feel premature and words seem inadequate what I need is a guitar solo to capture my emotions.

I know that the gospel came in flesh and blood. But it’s moments like these where we pray for transcendence. Lord, shine light and love that exposes sin and death. And show us again that the goodness of your witness is more than the ugliness of our heroes.
(Kate Bowler)

Songs In The Key Of Life: #BeKind

In 2016 Tim McGraw had a number 1 country single Stateside with a song entitled Hungry and Kind.  The song went on to win the award for Best Country Song at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.  Humble and Kind was actually written by Lori McKenna whose version I prefer …


Caroline FlackOf course, kindness is currently flavour of the month following the tragic death of Carolyn Flack.  The hashtag #BeKind together with various derivatives is still trending on twitter and numerous articles urging us to be kind to one another have appeared on line. And this is wonderful, we cannot underestimate the importance of kindness if we are to build a healthy society.

One of the most helpful comments I have read was posted on twitter by The Secret Barrister who was reflecting on the role of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Flack case.  Towards the end he writes the following:

How we still, in the 21st century, put the accused in the media stocks, assume their guilt or moral fault, reduce and minimise human complexities, dehumanise and commodify the vulnerable, and consume their personal tragedies for our own transient edification.

As fingers are frantically pointed in every direction, and articles are deleted and history is hastily rewritten, maybe our priority should instead be to look at how we treat the people – the living, breathing, bleeding human beings – at the centre of our criminal justice system.  (@BarristerSecret)

More than a decade ago, I found myself pondering whether or nor tabloid newspapers were the greatest spiritual threat to this nation. I still ponder that question and there is no doubt in my mind that they are a toxic stain on our nation’s wellbeing. They do all that the Secret Barrister states in the first paragraph and more – they luxuriate in human brokenness and misery, they care little for truth, they stigmatise the weak and vulnerable, they stoke up fear, resentment and prejudice against the stranger, and thereby diminish their readers, and to top it all they trade in a sense of moral outrage and superiority.

Of course as Peter Leonard points out in his excellent blog, it is easy to simply point the finger at The Sun and The Daily Mail and their ilk and blame them, but we also need to look in the mirror because we consume their product, we feed them, we cannot resist the click-bait, we too are quick to judge and slow to understand.   The press do not create our fear, resentment, prejudice and self-righteousness, these things already resides in our hearts. The press merely feed on and encourage our inner darkness and we need to break the cycle and to stop consuming this stuff.

But what is kindness?

I must confess that much as I enjoy McKenna’s song I do find it a bit sweet and sugary. Kindness is much more than being nice, holding doors, being polite and eschewing stealing, cheating and lying; admirable as these things are.  Kindness has to be much grittier than this, less middle-class and more radical.

kindnessAnd yet McKenna has it right that humility and kindness go together.  Humility, by which I mean here a recognition of one’s own brokenness and weakness seems to me to be the kind of soil in which kindness can take root – the kindness that lifts others up rather than putting them down; the kindness that sees the real living, breathing, bleeding person rather than dehumanising the other; the kindness that seeks to understand rather than to judge; the kindness that stands with those in pain rather than dismissing their pain. That type of kindness, the kindness which both reconciles and heals, has its roots in humility.

If I am honest, I find being kind extremely difficult which perhaps explains why Paul describes kindness as a ‘fruit of the Spirit.’  Kindness, particularly towards those we disapprove of in some way, does not come naturally to us, there is a ‘giftedness’ to it which we need to choose, practice and nurture.

All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

What strikes me here is the way that the apostle Paul grounds his appeal for his reader’s to practice kindness in the kindness of God – just as you in your brokenness have received kindness from God, so you are to pass it on by being kind to each other, even when you have been hurt and let down and they don’t ‘deserve’ your kindness. Be kind as God has been kind to you.

Which leads in well to a track from Ben Glover’s recent album, Shorebound, which contains a wonderful song/blessing called Kindness:

May you be without anger
May you be without hate
May you be without jealousy
May you be without shame
If the world gets lost in sadness
May you find a prayer of hope

More than all
May this be true
May you know kindness
May kindness know you

(Ben Glover)

Songs In The Key Of Life: Mortality

“8 years sober!” (@JasonIsbell 07-02-2020)

Jason Isbell reportedly once said that he and Amanda Shires [his wife] were watching ‘The Theory of Everything,’ the film about Stephen Hawking, when he casually said “Hon, would you still have loved me if I only had a couple of years to live when you met me?” and she said “Oh baby, you did only have a couple of years to live when I met you.”

It’s a poignant story and suffice to say that on 7th February 2012, Shires together with Isbell’s manager and the musician Ryan Adams, got him into an alcohol-and-drug-treatment centre in Nashville to deal with his addiction to alcohol.  Eight years later he remains sober and he has grown into mature commentator and observer of the human condition.  This 2013 article tells something of the story of those events.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once observed that much of the best poetry emerges from situations of brokenness and Isbell’s story would seem to back that up.

For myself, I spent much of last week thinking about funerals; I conducted the committal of a dear friend (hereafter known as ‘P’) on Tuesday and then another funeral on Friday, followed by a moving thanksgiving service for P on Saturday, when approximately 250 of us came together to celebrate a life well lived.

The two deceased folks had very little in common; they were very different people and lived very different lives.  However, coincidentally both were born in 1931 and both their lives were marked by long (50+ years) and enduring marriages.

Reflecting on these two lives and on the whole subject of mortality, I found myself returning again and again to Jason Isbell.  In 2017 Isbell released The Nashville Sound his third album since 2012. The album’s standout track was a love song to Shires entitled ‘If We Were Vampires.’

The song is a meditation on mortality.

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone

It is a reflection on the idea that because life is short and we don’t know when it will end, we need to take every opportunity to express and receive love.

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

Perhaps as Isbell claims mortality is actually a gift,

Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

There is pastoral wisdom here and also theological insight.

Psalm 90 is one of the great Biblical reflections on mortality.  It is also a call to embrace the gift of mortality and to live well with God and those we cherish in the light of that gift …  “Teach us to number our days,” the Psalmist prays, “that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12)

In other words, teach us to live day-by-day.  Teach us to accept each day as a gift and to learn to live meaningful, purposeful, joyful and enduring lives with God. Teach us not to take our loved ones (and others) for granted because one day they will be gone.  My friend P seemed to instinctively get both of these ideas and for that I am thankful.

And so I give thanks that Isbell is still sober and I pray that he and Shires will get their forty years together. I pray too S & O and all those who are the ones who are left behind.  And I pray that I may learn to accept each day as a gift and better cherish those who share my life.

Jason-Isbell-And-The-400-Unit-Reunions-1581343150-640x640

PS.  I had just finished writing this post when Isbell announced the release date for his next album together with a set of tour dates including a concert in London.  I know where I will be on 17th November.

Songs in the Key of Life: Lament

Bratislava

A slightly surreal day today. As I write this, two of my children, Small One and Great One are in Lisbon, coming to the end of a short break exploring the city, whilst Dramatic One is somewhere above mainland Europe on her maiden flight; she is going to Bratislava where she will be studying for the next four months as part of the wonderful Erasmus Programme.  As a father, I am suffering the mixed emotions you would expect, worried that she will be OK (she will!), excited at the possibilities this will offer her, and proud of her having the guts to do this.

Of course, all of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit Day.  Whilst I have friends who are pleased that we are leaving the European Union, for me it is a day of immense sadness.  In an editorial yesterday, The Irish Times put it like this, “no state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm.”  In the light of the tens of thousands of words, I have read on this subject, I find it difficult to disagree.

Regardless of the financial and economic cost of Brexit  and Bloomberg estimate a total cost of £200 billion by the end of 2020 which is more than the total cost of Britain’s membership over the past 45 years!), the whole sorry affair has, I believe, diminished us as a nation.  One of my friends on Facebook said this:

“In general, I don’t celebrate events that reduce the country’s practical sovereignty, vastly reduce the country’s soft power, can possibly lead to the breakup of the country, remove rights from its people, create havoc to the lives of millions of people, increase bureaucracy and costs to businesses, and enable racists, fascists and xenophobes.”

I do not believe a country can have a healthy future when those leading it have sold that future on the basis of a deliberate, sustained and systematic policy of lies, distortions, scapegoating and unhealthy nationalism and which too often seeks to turn friends into enemies (witness the embarrassing behaviour of the Brexit Party MEPs yesterday).

If you want to know more of what led us to this sorry (my opinion) state, can I point you towards this article on Chris Grey’s constantly helpful blog.

Of course, the European Union is a flawed institution (all human institutions are), but then I suspect UK plc will prove to be even more flawed over the coming decade.

ATC

In a previous life, I used to work for the Civil Aviation Authority.  One of the (many) interesting parts of my job were attending bi-annual meetings representing the UK at one of the sub-committees of the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) in Brussels. They were fascinating times, working with representatives from other European countries, navigating through cultural and wide range of other differences to reach consensus, or at least some measure of consensus. I learned much from the experience and tracking my daughter’s flight-on line, I am particularly grateful for the international co-operation which has resulted in such an effective air traffic control system.

Brussels

Although I wasn’t particularly taken with Brussels as a city, the people were great and I have very fond memories of sitting in the Grand-Place after a long day, sipping Belgian beer in front of an open fire and feeling grateful.  I was touched therefore to see pictures of yesterday’s UK tribute in Brussels when the Grand-Place was lit up in the Union Flag’s red, white and blue. Again, it stands in sharp contrast to the behaviour of our own MEPs and to those who seem to think that we should make it illegal to fly the European flag or that burning the flag is an appropriate thing to do today (not to mention the awful way many EU residents have been treated over the past three years) . Maybe the two different reactions tell us something significant about the state of our nation.

The mood for today is therefore Lament and my song choice reflects that. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miserables is one of the finest examples of contemporary lament. As well as being a lament for absent friends, it has added poignancy tonight in that Small One and Dramatic One are both massive Les Mis fans. The version I have chosen is the one recommended by Dramatic One featuring Rob Houchen, her favourite Marius.

So tonight I will settle down with a bottle of Belgian cherry beer and reflect on the Biblical theme of being ‘strangers and exiles’ in the world.

Songs in the Key of Life: Parenthood (part 2)

Three years and a day after our first daughter was born and twenty-one years ago today, our third child, ‘Dramatic One’ arrived.  A fourth and final child was to follow eight years later.

Martyn josephOne day, I will write a blog devoted to the Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph, but today I just want to highlight the way that in two songs he captures something of the joy of being a parent.  The first of these songs, Cardiff Bay was released on his eponymous album in 1995.  It tells the story of how one Sunday morning, he took his young son over to Cardiff Bay, ‘the place where the seagulls and the cranes play.’

The song paints an evocative and poignant picture of a father and son simply enjoying being together, a shared moment where father and son are one.

On a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
This is one day of our lives
And on a Sunday over Cardiff Bay
Know that I love you
I hope that’s alright
All of my life

This version of the song performed at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival – he is joined by Show of Hands (who will undoubtedly get their own blog post as well)

As I reflect on the fact that my children are now making their own way in the world, I share Martyn’s comment in the introduction: ‘I don’t know how the hell did happens, it makes no sense to me at all’.

MJ - Here Come The YoungSkip forward 25 years and Martyn’s children are now grown up but those simple shared moments are still important.  In ‘Driving Her Back To London’ from his 2018 album Here Come The Young, Martyn captures another simple, shared, moment this time with Harriet, his daughter, as they swap favourite music on the way.  Another shared moment in which father and daughter are one.

She plays Kings of Leon, I play her Rolling Stones
And time slips away
But all that’s gathered will remain
Driving her home now once again

Maybe it is those simple everyday shared moments – moments shared between a parent and a child, between a husband and wife, between friends, that are the truly holy moments, the moments of real blessing …

Once again, I see myself and my kids in the song:

I held you to the sky not long ago
Now there you fly
See how high you go

And I hope I wasn’t too much
But you are loved and beautiful
So much more than words could ever know

I absolutely love the fact that my older three kids are making their way in the world, I am filled with immense pride in the people that they have become.  I rejoice in their growing independence and yet I miss the snatched moments when we can share simple pleasures and regret the times when I have missed out on those moments because I had other stuff to do.

London
Home from home for you
We’ve been swapping tunes on iPhones
I play you Bruce you play me Muse
And time has slipped away
But all that’s gathered now remains
And I’m driving you home now
Yeah I’m driving you home now
And I’ll do it again and again

I love this version recording in a Belgium where at the end Martyn gives a brief insight into the song and his hope that our young people will make a better fist of running this world than our generation have.

“Your wish as a parent is that your children will not inherit your mistakes, you want them to take away the best of what you are and leave behind the rest.”

And for Dramatic One, here is our shared Bruce song:

Songs in the Key of Life: Parenthood

Songs_in_the_key_of_lifeIn 1976, Stevie Wonder released the album Songs in the Key of Life, the album spawned a number of hit singles including Sir Duke and I Wish.  Whilst I enjoy the album,  I have always loved the album title – it is such an evocative phrase – ‘Songs in the key of life’ …  Songs that capture the difference moods and moments of life … lyrics that celebrate the highs and mourn the lows of life … music inspired by the ordinary and extra-ordinary experiences of life … melodies that give voice to the human experience – to my experience.

So over the coming months, we’re going to explore some of my songs in the key of life, songs that resonate with me. I will try and post at least one song a week, some weeks it might be more.

So let’s start with an album track from Songs in the Key of Life, which remains one of the most popular songs in the Wonder Catalogue.   Isn’t She Lovely celebrates the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha, and starts with a baby’s first cry (recorded during childbirth), later the song features a short clip of Wonder bathing Aisha.

This is a feel-good song in which Wonder’s harmonica plays a defining part.  It is the song which captures the exuberance and something of the joy and wonder of becoming and being a parent.  At the same time it recognises and acknowledges that life is ultimately a gift from God and yet also the fruit of human love.

We have been heaven blessed
I can’t believe what God has done
Through us he’s given life to one
But isn’t she lovely made from love.

It is a song that has a particular resonance for me today as I remember those events on the morning of 9th January 1996 when I became a parent for the first time. I remember driving home from the hospital aware that my life had irrevocably changed and that I was just setting out on a great adventure.

Twenty-four years later, being a dad remains just about the greatest joy, privilege and challenge of my life.  And my daughter remains lovely.

This version of the song, recorded live in Hyde Park in 2016, skips the baby recordings, but captures the general feel-good vibe of the song and allows us to luxuriate in Wonder’s gorgeous harmonica playing.