Songs In The Key Of Life: Weariness

I’ve had a couple of blog posts half-written over the past month but I haven’t managed to complete them. Much of this is due to a deep weariness which seems to make creativity difficult (especially when you are not naturally creative). Speaking to others, I know that this feeling is quite common, maybe it is what is being referred to as ‘Lockdown fatigue.’

Fortunately, I am now on holiday and despite last week’s humidity I do feel like I am beginning to recover. Although we are not going away this year – there are some books to enjoy, some music to savour, some take-aways with my name on it, some long walks beckoning and some family time to enjoy.

Yesterday morning we managed a couple of hours at Emmetts Gardens, a local National Trust property which is a favourite of ours. Photographing flowers is something I find therapeutic and here are a couple of yesterday’s offerings.

One of my companions through Lockdown has been Bruce Springsteen and many hours have been spent exploring local walks and listening to Springsteen.

In particular, I caught up with a number of concerts from his 2009 Walking on a Dream Tour (so I’m a bit of geek, I admit it!).

One of the staple songs on that tour was a cover of Hard Times (Come No More) which according to Wikipedia is “an American parlour song,” written by Stephen Foster and first published in 1854. The song “asks the fortunate to consider the plight of the less fortunate.”

The chorus captures not only the mood of the song, but also the mood of many (myself included) at this time:

‘Tis the song of the tired, the sigh of the weary,
Hart Times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

This recording of the song is taken from Bruce’s Hyde Park conert on that 2009 tour.

Of course, perspective is important and time spent photographing flowers, walking along the beach, enjoying a good novel or food with my family, as well as refreshing me, serves to remind me that I am one of the ‘fortunate ones.’ Whilst I may be weary, the burdens I carry are relatively light and temporary unlike those in Springsteen’s song:

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er;
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

One of the dangers of our current situation is that, like austerity before it, it will only serve to increase the gap between ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our society, bringing fresh or deeper hard times for many. ‘A’ level algorithms anyone?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Jesus’ invitation is not an invitation to escape, it is not a promise of an ‘easy life’ with no hard times, but of rest, of divine presence and resources and purpose. But also this invitation contains within it the call to work for a society in which each person has a place and a fair share.

Moments That The Words Don’t Reach

Regular readers of this blog (if such a person exists) will know of my appreciation of lament. Learning to lament well is, I believe, a vital human skill if we are to become people who can negotiate the pain and sorrow that is inevitable in our lives. First and foremost, lament is about finding ways to give voice to our pain and suffering.

One of the important lessons I have learned is that one does not suffer alone, suffering is a universal human experience. And one of the corollaries of that is that there is a treasure trove of expressions of lament we can draw on in times of grief and pain. Within the Christian and Jewish tradition, the central such resource is the Psalms, that great catalogue of human experience offered to God in prayer. Perhaps the most-focused, all-encompassing expression of lament comes in Psalm 22:1 – words that Jesus used on the cross.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me. (Ps 22:1)

Much us I love the Psalms, I also find myself ‘collecting’ contemporary laments from the world of culture. One particular area I am interested to explore is the use of lament in the Musicals. I have long felt that Empty Chairs & Empty Tables from Les Mis is one of the finest contemprorary examples of lament (although in many ways it sometimes feels like the whole of Les Mis is one giant lament).

Since watching Hamilton recently, the song that I have repeatedly returned to is It’s Quiet Uptown. For those who don’t know the show, this song effectively dramatizes Hamilton’s grief over his son Philip’s death, but also tells how united in grief Hamilton and Eliza, his wife, were reconciled – the moment when the whole company sings the word forgiveness never fails to move me to tears – in the midst of grief it captures my deepest hope of a transformed community where forgiveness is enacted with each other and with God.

The Book Hamilton: The Revolution records how Hamilton struggled to describe an experience which he had never felt first-hand (losing a child) until he realised that ‘his inability to grasp the enormity of Alexander and Eliza’s loss wasn’t a barrier to writing the song, it was the song.’

There are moments that the words don’t reach.
There’s a grace too powerful to name.

The book mentioned above tells a powerful story of how in the run-up to the initial Broadway show, Oskar and Laurie Eustis’ 16 year-old son Jack committed suicide. Oskar was the artistic director of the Public Theatre, which gave Hamilton its start. When Lin Miranda heard of Jack’s death he sent the demo recording of ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ along with a note of condolence – “If art can help us grieve, can help us mourn, then lean on it,” he wrote. If they preferred to delete the song, he would understand.

“Oskar and Laurie did lean on it … It was the only song they had listened to in their first week of grieving. They had listened to it every day.”

Hamilton: The Revolution

Such is the power of lament and listening to the song again, I remember the families of children whose funeral I have conducted or attended, and as I shed a tear, I pray that they might know the grace of the One who stood with us in our sense of grief and abandonment.

Words (and numbers): Building Cathedrals

My favourite (and best) subject at school was Maths. I loved Maths (I was a strange child), or at least I thought I did. It was only when I was halfway through my degree course that I realised that is was not Maths that I loved but numbers, and the less that Maths was about numbers the less I enjoyed it.

I remember as a child aged 6 or 7 being fascinated by multiplication tables, I remember looking at them and being fascinated by the order and the rhythm – to my seven-year old eyes it was a thing of beauty. It was also frustrating because the table only went up to twelve and I was keen to extend it, so for a few days, I spent my breaktimes extending the table so that it went from 1-30. By the time I had finished, I had multiplication sussed.

I still love numbers as my family will tell you – working out random sums from everyday life gives me joy (I am still that strange child) and I continue to find the patterns in mathematics beatiful. I am grateful that for many years I was fortunate to work in an environment where I had lots of numbers to play with and patterns to recognise. If you are analysing statistics, having an eye for patterns is a useful skill to have.

Handling statistics with integrity is something of a bee in my bonnet. There may be lies, damned lies and statistics, but the problem is not with the statistics but rather with the interpreter. To give an example, I have been appalled by the ways in which the government has, over the past few months, sought to manipulate and misrepresent statistics on covid tests. In their hands the statistics have effectively become lies which are intended to twist, distort and obfuscate the true picture. That such a thing should happen at such a time at this and to such an important measure makes me very angry. And yes, I know that politicians are often selective in their use of statistics, but this is deliberate dishonesty. Correctly used statistics and figures can help build a flourishing and fair society; incorrectly used they become a political propaganda tool.

Then my life changed tack and I embarked on a vocation in which words, rather than numbers, were one of the tools of my trade. And over the last two decades I have learned to love words. To my family’s distress word puns give me a ridiculous sense of pleasure, but more importantly I have learned to enjoy using words, albeit with some nervousness because words have tremendous power – the power to inspire but also to hurt and destroy.

My last post referred to the musical Hamilton. In truth, there are a lot of words in Hamilton – nearly 24,000 apparently (which is significantly more than Macbeth, Shakespeare’s longest play). And words and how for Hamilton the words he writes will be his legacy is one of the important themes of the musical.

This all comes together in the song Burn. The background is that Hamilton’s political opponents are aware of his affair with Maria Reynolds. Worried that they will use this to discredit him, Hamilton publishes a detailed account of his affair in an attempt ‘to get ahead of the narrative.’

But the words intended to save his political career also destroy his marriage. Eliza, his wife, feels betrayed not just by his affair but by the way he ‘told the whole world how your brought this girl into our bed.’ Her response is to burn all the words that he wrote her:

You and your words, obsessed with your legacy
Your sentences border on senseless
And you are paranoid in every paragraph
How they perceive you.

Ironically in these lyrics about the misuse of words, Miranda confirms what a great wordsmith he is! But it is one of the earlier verses that reminds me about the power of words:

You and your words flooded my senses
Your sentences left me defenseless
You built me palaces out of paragraphs
You built cathedrals

As a pastor and preacher, I am required to read, reflect and seek to understand the words of ancient scripture. Part of this involves recognising that these words come from another time and place and language and that the whole process of translation is a complex process. I am grateful for those who undertake this task.

But being a pastor is also about the way I use words, when I teach and preach, but also when I speak in meetings and especially in pastoral care situations. Many years ago, The Resurrection Band sung about needing music that feeds, not elevator music, and the same is true of words. Words can be dangerous, they can demean and manipulate and spread division and hatred, they can spread untruths and misconceptions, they can destroy; but words can also feed and encourage and build-up and inspire and bring life. Words can be like cathedrals that carry and inspire faith, worship and service as well as joy, hope and peace.

Words can bolster the speaker or they can lift-up the one who listens; the temptation to be the former kind of speaker is always present for every public speaker. But, our culture and the church disparately needs the latter kind of speaker, the one who builds up others. And, of course, we need leaders who will speak truth even when it is difficult and unpalatable.

Hamilton: Who Tells Your Story?

I was a Hamilton fan long before seeing the show. Encouraged by my two teenager daughters, the soundtrack became a part of the backing music to my life soon after it was released. In fact, listening to Hamilton together became part of the routine of driving my eldest daughter to and from Exeter at the beginning and end of each term.

So when I finally got to see the live show a month or so after it opened my expectations were high; it is safe to say that I wasn’t disappointed. We’ve been back to see it since then and on both visits the tears have flowed. Hopefully a third visit will be possible next year.

The release of Hamilton on the Disney+ was once again met with huge anticipation and once again it did not disappoint, the filming adding an intimacy which is probably missing in all but the most expensive seats, plus introducing us the original cast whose voices I have learned to love – I found Philippa Soo’s performance as Eliza particularly moving and poignant.

In these times, the song’s final – Who Tells Your Story? has a particular relevance and poignancy. The song is about legacy, about how one is remembered, about who and how your story is told. One of the things that the recent public discussion on Black Lives Matter and on statues has reminded me is the importance of history. A number of times I have heard someone say ‘you can’t erase history.’ Which, of course, is rather disengenious – the debate is not about erasing history but about how history is told and about which voices are heard.

Will they tell your story? (Time)
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
(Time)
Who tells your story?

It has often been said that history is told from the perspective of the winners which is undoubtedly true, but also frequently from the perspective of the rich, the powerful, and the white. Even, the story of the abolition of slavery is generally framed through white powerful peoples such as William Wilberforce, whilst the contribution of black people such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho (admit it you have never heard of either of them!) is often ignored despite their importance.

Michael Holding, the great West Indian fast bowler of an earlier era and now Sky commentator, made a powerful plea for the role of retelling history as a means for addressing the problem of racism. Do watch it here.

https://www.skysports.com/watch/video/sports/cricket/12023962/holding-society-has-to-change

Who tells your story?

In that video, Holding discusses the way that Jesus and Judas are portrayed in popular imagery. Reflecting on that video, I was reminded of how much of Jesus’ ministry took place on the margins, on the edge of society, amidst marginalised and rejected people. And yet Jesus validated their stories and the gospels retell their stories. And on those occasions where Jesus did offer words of critique, it is generally the powerful, either politically or religiously (and often the two go together) who are the brunt of his criticism.

Who tells you story?

Maybe the true nature of a society and a culture is revealed by the stories of those who are the weakest and the most vulnerable? Maybe we need to hear the voices of the voiceless to truly see who we are as a people? People like Emanuel Gomes whose story is harrowing.

Who tells our story?

Here Come The Young

Zoe Ball’s Breakfast Show on Radio 2 this morning was one of the most beautiful, life-affirming pieces of radio I have heard for a long time. The show was devoted to announcing the winners of the annual 500 Words competition.

For those who don’t know 500 Words is a short-story writing competition for children between the ages of 5 and 13. The rules are simple – ” All entrants must pen an original story, no more than 500 words in length, and submit it online.”

Listening to some of the winning entries I found myself laughing and crying in quick succession. The creativity, imagination, humour, compassion and wisdom revealed in these stories is absolutely stunning

The winning stories can be found here. Do yourself a favour and listen to some of them – I particularly enjoyed The Winning Goal and The Diary of a Five Pound Note.

As I listened to story after story, I was reminded of a Martin Joseph song that my colleague referenced last Sunday. It is called Here Comes The Young and it reflects on how in these difficult times, the younger generation are for many of us a beacon of hope. 500 Words only reinforced that conviction.

Here come the young
With open minds and hearts
Inclusive from the start
Here come the young
Here come the young
They might just save the day
Best get out the way
Here come the young

Part of the Problem

Shortly after midnight on 4th February 1999, four New York City police officers apprehended Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. He was unarmed and innocent of any crime apart possibly from reaching up to take his wallet out of his pocket, because at that moment the officers opened fire on him. In total 41 bullets were fired, nineteen of which tore through his body killing him instantly. The officers were later acquitted of all charges.

Shortly after Diallo’s death, Bruce Springsteen wrote American Skin (41 Shots) , a song which laments Diallo’s death, but also laments for a society scarred by systemic and institutionalised racism. This cover by Living Colour reduced me to tears. Do watch it:

To be honest, it is with some hesitation that I write this blog, after all the last thing the world probably needs is a privileged white guy writing about racism. To quote Jason Isbell, “I’m a white man, living in a white man’s world” (see below for video);

I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through their burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

Isbell continues:

There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
You’re still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate

Racism is an afront to God and a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Racism dehumanises, not just the victim but the perpetrator as well. The fight against racism without and within is thus a spiritual necessity as well as a political necessity. Although, I have to say that increasingly I believe that the any dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is a false one. God is, I believe, very interested in the type of society we build and the priorities and values that we choose to prioritise. These are spiritual choices. But more than that, a society or culture that continues to privilege certain groups or which is build on materialism, prejudice and other false idols is spiritually toxic to its members. But I digress.

David Fitch writes:

“I am a racist. I am a white male in his 50’s. I have been born into and bred in socio cultural systems built by white men. White men’s ways of thinking and operating built into its power structures. There is a socio-cultural history that dates back to at least the 15th century that makes me blind to the ways my life is advantaged in society. Therefore I am a racist.”

“I am a white man living in a white man’s world.” In other words, I am part of the problem – I have been shaped and formed by a system that privileges white men in ways which I have only just begun to recognise. If you add to that my own brokenness and sinfulness, my unwillingness to do the hard work to engage with this issue (we could call that complicity) and my own prejudice, then I have no right to comment. Racism dehumanises us all, me included. That is part of the genius of Springsteen’s song, it enables us to recognise that truth, and having recognised that truth we need to act, to change.

My first job then is to listen, to learn, to allow my head and my heart to be changed. My friend Steve Holmes has done us all a service by publishing a collection of resources to allow that to happen. You can read them here:

I have already started the Ben Lindsay work following recommendations from others and then I will move onto Reni Eddo-Lodge. For me, for all of us, this is a spiritual necessity at a time like this.

Brambles

Whilst I enjoying taking pictures of flowers, truth be told I am not much a gardener, preferring to enjoy the labour of others. But this weekend, my wife who is responsible for all the good bits in our garden, asked me to do something about the most neglected part of our garden.

BrambleIn just 48 hours I have developed a deep dislike of brambles and my fingers and arms bear the scars (although my ‘macho’ unwillingness to wear gardening gloves dilutes the sympathy I have received from my wife!). Brambles, I quickly concluded, are evil so-and so’s …

 

One horticultural website described them thus: 

 

There are over 300 varieties of bramble in the UK and they can seemingly thrive in any condition given … Their roots can regenerate from the smallest bit of root left in situ after weeding, and the flowers also produce vast quantities of seed without the need for pollination, making this weed a born survivor.

Brambles are capable of growing up to 5 meters in one season. They arch through our shrubs and send long stems out at ground level, which eventually root and produce even more brambles. Prickly and horrible to remove, no wonder Sleeping Beauty had to wait a long time to be rescued from her thorny incarceration.

Well, my experience this weekend confirm those observations. Bramble’s long tentacles seem to get everywhere bearing an awful prickly threat.  For now, a large patch of the infected area is clear, a certain amount of ‘black sacking’ etc will follow, but I am aware that the hard work has now begun and I will need to remain watchful and nip any future appearances of bramble in the bud.

Looking at my fingers at the end of yesterday, I was reminded of a verse in Genesis 3 where God describes a post-fall world (world):

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field. (Gen. 3:17-18)

I recalled also God’s warning to Cain in Genesis 4, where Cain’s fury at God (and Abel) for the fact that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his wasn’t threatens to turn to violence: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7) – like bramble sneaking along at ground level under the radar seeking to rule the garden.

This weekend we have been celebrating VE Day and  victory over Nazism.  Nonetheless, as Kenneth Cross reflects evil ideologies, such as those that found embodiment in Nazism, continue to crouch at our door.  Many of the thistles and thorns that gave rise to Nazism are still around, they haven’t gone away and their long tentacles continue to infect our 21st century garden – greed, national hubris, structural equality, the scapegoating of whole groups of people (Jews, immigrants, …).  There is still much urgent bramble shifting to be done.

As Mumford & Sons put it:

But plant your hope with good seeds
Don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds

Songs In The Key Of Life: Hope

My wife and I went for a short walk this morning, and as we came home, she stopped to show me this small pansy growing up through the path on the side of our road.

P1010209

For me, it is a sign of hope, a testament to the fact that Spring will not be concreted out, that life will triumph.  Hope amidst the concrete – not the wishful-thinking type of hope that we often settle for, not a hope which ignores pain and suffering, but the resilient kind of hope that refuses to see the concrete as the final word.

In our current sermon series at church, we have been looking at the Psalms – so far we have considered lament, sadness, grief, anger comes this week and then hope.  It is tempting to think of hope as the antidote to these other emotions – a kind of zero-sum game where you can either hope or you can lament.  In fact, it seems to me that the nature of true Biblical hope, of resurrection-shaped hope is that it lives with, alongside and in the midst of the pain and the struggle.  True hope speaks into the anger and is itself refined by the grief.  True hope does not silence the lament but shapes the lament.   True hope is not escapism, it is not merely positive thinking, but the conviction that God is not absent, that God will walk with us and that God will always have the final word, and that final word will be a word of life, of healing, of salvation.

P1010212
On my walk earlier, I was so focused on getting home that I completely missed this small, insignificant, fragile yet beautiful plant.  Similarly, it is so easy to focus on the pain and the struggle that we forget to hope.

Jim Wallis, hopefully reminds us that hope is a decision, it is something we choose:

“Our choice is between cynicism and hope. Hope is a decision you make. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting for the evidence to change.”  (Jim Wallis)

Regular readers will know of my appreciation for Martyn Joseph.   Martyn has just released a new song When We Get Through This.  It is a song of resilient hope, a look ahead to when we do get through this and how that might shape how we live on the other side.  Do download this as all proceeds will go towards the Cavell Nurses Trust.

Just imagine – justice, truth, love, reconciliation, renewal.  And having celebrated communion gathered with and yet separated from my church family, how I hope for that time

When we get through this, we’ll break bread and wine

We’ll drink bread and wine and drink to a kingdom of justice, peace and joy.

Motherless Child

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

(Psalm 137:1-2)

During our church’s worship this morning we were exploring the theme of lament.   As part of the service we heard an update from John and Mary Featherstone, and later in the service we listened to John’s poignant interpretation of a song entitled ‘motherless child.’

The song is a traditional spiritual which emerged from the slave communities in the United States.  It’s a song of lament, expressing the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from her or his parents.

Delving into google and youtube, I found myself captivated by the different ways the song has been interpreted and by the stature of those who have interpreted it.  Particularly powerful is this version by Odetta, who was nicknamed, ‘The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.’  It was recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1963 and wonderfully captures the sense of injustice, the sorrow, the longing, that lie behind the words.  This is contemporary lament in all its pathos.

American soprano, Barbara Hendrix brings her classical pedigree to this song, her power and beauty bringing an added dimension to the song, whilst perhaps losing something of that sense of injustice.

If one of the marks of a true great song is the number of different and diverse interpretations it inspires, then this song qualifies – 7-string guitar, folk, classical soprano and many others.  In fact the range of interpretations out there is enormous, from Moby to Mahalia Jackson to Van Morrison; there is even a remarkable version by Tom Jones with Portishead (which is a fascinating mix anyway) and I haven’t even mentioned Boney M’s own version, although there is a reason for that!  But the final word should go to Prince, who takes this song to another level.  Just listen to that searing guitar.

In Prince’s hands, this becomes a 21st century lament for the way-too-many motherless children and perhaps reflects Prince’s own complex relationship with his parents.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home