Archive for August, 2008

Silly Love Songs

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.

I look around and I see, it isn’t so…”

From “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings

Given that I sometimes leads times of music at our church gathering, Duncan lent me a really thought provoking book last year called “Exiles – Living Missionally In A Post-Christian Culture” by Michael Frost.  I’ve included a link here.  In particular, he helpfully directed me to chapter called “The Songs of Revolution – Jesus Ain’t My Boyfriend”.  It really got me thinking about the words we sing in church without really thinking what they mean.  I’ll quote the book as follows:

“At a conventional church service recently all my worst fears about the romantic nature of contemporary worship were realised.  On the screen appeared the following lyrics, which most people around me sang with furrowed brows, closed eyes, and meaningful looks of intensity on their faces.

“The simplest of all love songs

I want to bring to you,

So I’ll let my words be few –

Jesus, I am so in love with you”.

I balked.  I couldn’t bring myself to tell Jesus that I am in love with him.  In fact, I had such a sense of revulsion that I had to think long and hard about why this was disturbing me so much.  Maybe the lyric isn’t meant to be taken too seriously (I can be guilty about thinking too much about these things), but it occurred to me that I’m not only not in love with Jesus, I’m not actually “in love” with anyone in my life at the moment.  I’m not in love with my children.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never “fallen in love” with any of my children.  I have loved them with an intensity of love that I never knew I was capable of.  I have loved them more than life itself since each of them was born.  I have never at any moment in their lives questioned my unconditional, unreserved love for them.  But “fall in love” with them? No.  Never.

I love my mother dearly, but I haven’t “fallen in love” with her.  There are many people in my life that I love very much, but I’m not “in love” with them either.  I wouldn’t even say that I’m “in love” with my wife, Carolyn, whom I have loved deeply and faithfully for more than half my life.  I was once in love with her.  Actually, I was head over heels in love with her, but I discovered that it’s a fleeting and unreliable set of emotions.  I’m not suggesting that being in love with someone isn’t deliciously exciting, even exhilarating.  It’s a marvelous feeling, but it never lasts.  It might be the kind of emotional elation that throws members of the opposite sex together, but it doesn’t carry the kind of emotional provisions that can sustain that relationship.  Real loving is something much richer, deeper, more robust, more powerful than anything experienced when we are “in love” with someone.  In fact, Scott Peck says that in any relationship, real loving can begin only when the feelings of being in love dissipate.  Once those fabulously carefree romantic feelings ebb away after a time, then a couple is forced to confront the much more genuinely loving choice to remain faithful and true.

So, what does it mean to sing to Jesus that we are in love with him?  Is it that we have intense and exhilarating feelings of attraction toward him?  That our legs go to jelly and our stomach churns whenever he walks into the room?  I have no doubt that when we first encounter Jesus and his savage grace, there are intense feelings of spiritual pleasure, even bliss.  This certainly was my experience.  I also have no doubt that in our life-long journey with Jesus there will be times of spiritual communion of similar intensity.  Sometimes during corporate worship or personal times of reflection and prayer, I feel deep gratitude and a wonderful attraction to the person of Jesus.  But I have never felt myself falling in love with him”.

Interesting and thought provoking stuff. It helps me see how marriage and the commitment that goes with that to stay the course “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” is a symbol of our commitment to Christ.  After all, the church is the bride of Christ, is it not?  It makes me realise afresh, how blessed I am to have the wonderful wife I do.  Life has been far from plain sailing at times in the 10 and a half years we have been married, but I still love her hugely and, yes, it is a very different set of emotions from those heady days when we first started going out in 1992.  Does that diminish how I feel now?  Not in the slightest.  That said I think I would still describe myself as very much in love with her, although I know exactly what Michael Frost is getting at.


Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam


Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.

Sunbeams are not made like me”

From “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” by The Vaselines

The above song was immortalised in Nirvana’s “MTV: Unplugged in New York” live recording six short months or so before Kurt Cobain tragically took his own life.  Whilst the song is somewhat child-like and cynical, I actually reckon it holds a fair bit of truth.

I’ve previously commented that many of the songs I learnt in my most formative years are the ones I can still recite perfectly.  That is certainly true for me when I think about nursery rhymes or songs from Sunday School.  What did we sing in those church halls in my pre-school days?  “Jesus Love Is Very Wonderful”, “My God Is So Big, So Strong and So Mighty”, “Jesus Loves Me This I Know For The Bible Tells Me So” and the age old classic, “I May Never March In The Infantry” (Man, what was THAT one all about?)

When my three and a half year old is really happy, she will sometimes burst into song.  Some of it is the songs she learns in nursery.  From time to time it cheers my heart when she spontaeneously breaks into “Our God Is A Great Big God” or “1,2,3,4,5 my Jesus is my life!” with great enthusiasm.  It gladdens me in equal measure when she joyfully announces “I love you.  I am the milkman of human kindness, I will leave an extra pint” (from Billy Bragg’s “The Milkman of Human Kindness”).

So hopefully, some truths are being sown in this little life and I pray that some day she will find her own faith.  I pray that the example that my wife and I set will make it seem really natural for her to grasp a worldview where the God of the Bible is central to that.  I pray that we would not brainwash her or impose some hand me down faith that she doesn’t own for herself.

Does Jesus want me for a sunbeam?  Well, I am called to be salt and light.  To be distinctive, to add flavour to the world around me, to preserve what is good, noble and true, to bring hope and direction into darkness.  But a sunbeam, just sounds so twee and makes me think of sticking my head in the clouds and not tackling life head on.  It troubles  me when we sing songs like “Oh, Happy Day” in church, because the lyrics seem to polarised and not really a reflection of what seems to me like real life.  Maybe I have just always preferred the minor chords…

So if Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam, what does he want of me?  What does he want of you? 

I think we cause ourselves a lot of frustration in life by never gaining a satisfactory answer to that particular question.  I have often wished I had the giftings or abilities of others.  Sometimes I have taken on responsibilities that I have found draining because, whilst I could do them, they were not really what enthused me or what I am wired or shaped to do.

Undoubtedly, the most helpful thing I have done in my Christian life was to work through a book called “The Network Ministry Resource” by Bruce Bugbee and Don Cousins.  It helped me clarify what my spiritual gifts and natural abilities were, what I’m equipped to do, what my personal style is and how I can use that with authenticity and where I’m actually motivated to get involved.  As a small group we worked our way through this for a few months, affirming, challenging and holding each-other accountable.  I now base so many of my decisions on what I learned from that book.  I would strongly recommend it to everyone and I provide a link here for the leaders pack which has a DVD resource, etc and another link here for the participants’ book. 

I know that most of our small group found this a really important investment of time.  Even if you’re not affiliated with a small group of folks in a regular or structured way, there are ways of getting people around you who can be accountable even via the phone or Internet.  That has also been equally true for me in my journey thus far.  

I can only say how useful I have found this exercise.  It has shaped my work life, home life and church life and helped me pick up and explore some new things (including this blog) and set down some other stuff.

Read. Think. Pray. Live.

Bad Architecture

I read an article in The Guardian about 18 months ago bemoaning the decline in sales of poetry within the UK.  The journalist posed the question as to whether singer songwriters were writing prose for a new generation?  He cited the likes of Joanna Newsom and I have to confess that experiencing her perform her album “Ys” live with a 21 piece orchestra was one of the most artistically original, breathtaking and noteworthy concerts I have ever had the good fortune of witnessing.  So, if archaeologists discovered the sleeve notes of our records or CDs (sadly mp3s rarely have an equivalent), would the words without the music read like poetry or the psalms?

Following the theme of my previous post I’ll let the following lyrics do the talking.  If you want to hear the accompanying song you can download it for free here as one of the tracks on the “Sergeant Howie’s Holy Stamina Test” EP.  That said, there is the option to make a donation and, given that this is the artist’s livelihood, I would encourage you to promote art and creativity by doing so. 

“I’ve always believed in the old stories of rising from the dead.

But where is my heart? What’s my priority?  Is it just to retread

a comfortable blanket of philosophy  that’s only in the heads

of a deluded community that’s lost all its stability

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Why am I ashamed of what I hold to be the heart of what is me?

What am I afraid of? Is it only laughter at what I believe?

The same old stories.  The death of me.

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Let’s take them apart, all of these old beliefs and go back to the plans.

Burn them down to be rebuilt to house the lonely and the damned.

Bad architecture will never last.

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?

Where have you gone?”

“Bad Architecture” by Calamateur

Read. Think. Pray. Live

Unsafe Building

Maybe it’s the Surveyor in me, but I find myself thinking about buildings a lot of the time.

If you asked people outside of churches what the word “church” means, then I expect that a lot of them would talk about a building.  Ask the same question to those inside churches and I would hope they would talk about the people, community and practical outreach.

Does the type of building that our churches meet in matter?  To an extent, yes, in that the physical space enables or restricts how we accommodate the various activities we want to pursue.  By nature I am one of those people who gets excited about embracing culture, dreaming things up again and creatively communicating ideas.  I resent being bound by traditions and icons.  That said, I have often found it helpful when on holiday to spend time visiting cathedrals.  The architecture simply provokes a sense of hush and awe.  When I visit such places I have often found that my eyes are drawn upwards and away from my everyday circumstances.  Do we naturally behave differently in those sorts of buildings out of respect?  But, surely, it is the fear (or awe) of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111 vs 10) not “respect for the Lord”?

As someone who sometimes leads times of music in our church gathering, I strive to simply create a time or place in our often hectic lives for each of us to try and intentionally meet with God.  David Crowder once said, “I want to build cathedrals.  I want to use words and notes rather than stone and mortar.”  If music of whatever style can be used to try and do exactly that, then that excites me creatively.  But why do we restrict that to music alone?  What about art, film, photography, writing, blogging even?  Is there a way we can incorporate more creativity without that detracting from why we meet collectively as church?

Whilst I love the idea of church as sanctuary, I wonder how comfortable and cushioned our church culture has become at times?

I have been systematically reading my way through the Old Testament in recent months.  I’ve often found it confusing as the way that God acts seems so at odds at times with how I usually perceive a God of love or the elements of His character that I tend to think about.  In Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, God instructs some fairly stringent church traditions and rituals.  He meets his people in specific tents, meeting places with associated altars, and ornately decorated furniture – many of the things I have a tendency to see as getting in the way and boxing God into out dated, man-made, pharaseic tradition.

The sermons delivered by our Pastor these past two Sundays have kept me engaged throughout and left me having to address some fairly uncomfortable questions.  What will God ask me as I give an account of how I spent all of those years at work?  Did I use my natural abilities, spiritual giftings and general passions?  Were they some extra-curricular activity squeezed into the fag end of my days outside of the office or did I let them permeate everything I did?  That was some of what I personally took from last week’s sermon.

What does the wrath of God really look like?  Is He actually really angry with us and the lies we have bought into at times in the name of seemingly “being church” or “following Jesus”?  Have we settled for a pale imitation and convinced ourselves that it is the real thing?  That’s some of the stuff I’ve got to figure out as a result of today.

There are people whom I know and care for deeply who I would love to let listen to these sermons and to grapple with the content in the way I am trying to do.  But, the challenge is how I apply the questions and challenges to my life rather than projecting it into my interpretation of someone else’s situation.  That said, if you’re reading this post I would strongly recommend that you check the sermons out.  They can be found (or should be in coming days) on iTunes under podcasts and under Morningside Baptist Church Sermon recordings (10th August and 17th August 2008) or downloaded direct from our website here.  Alternatively, Duncan has posted his notes from last Sunday here.

Maybe our church buildings and gatherings should be unsafe buildings.  Places where God can break in and bring us face down in reverence and awe before Him.  Places where He can place His demands on our lives.  Places where He graciously gives, jealously loves and demandingly takes.  It strikes me that unsafe buildings are often condemned and then painstakingly appraised for their potential, lovingly redesigned and restored into something with a specific purpose that draws people to them…

“Declare yourself an unsafe building
Suffer the indignation of your world,
To climb the ladders you’ve gotta suss out the snakes
Remember your height remember to never look down”.

From “Unsafe Building” by The Alarm

Read. Think. Pray. Live.

The Big Music

"I have heard the big music
And I'll never be the same
Something so pure
Just called my name"

So I’ve been musing of late about music as a small part of worship.  If music creates time and space to retreat from our daily demands and to meet afresh with God, to hear Him and respond with openness and then to walk back out into our “everyday, ordinary life – our sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking around life – and to place it before God as an offering” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message), then it has achieved its purpose.  Sometimes, I wonder if I can get caught up in  the music – a corporate sing song or knees up , if you like.

At other times I can just look around our congregation and see people responding in their own individual way.  I can see people praising God in spite and despite of some pretty difficult personal circumstances.  I can see people re-focusing their attention away from their own situation, hopes, doubts and fears.  I can see people refusing to stick their heads in the sand or in the clouds, but bringing all of their baggage and laying it down and trying to figure out how to walk back out into a new week.  When we sing together I hear affirmation of the building blocks of our faith.

“I have climbed the big tree

Touched the big sky

I just stuck my hand up in the air

And everything came into colour”

When people unaccustomed with our church traditions come to our events what do they make of what they see?  There are times that my only response to God can be to raise my hands in recognition of His hugeness and my, seemingly, insignificance.  There are times when I’ve found myself on my knees, aware of the bundle of contradictions that I am and in need of mercy.  There are times I simply know that I am stood on holy ground, my Birkenstocks discarded and barefoot like Moses before the burning bush. 

Does music provoke these responses?  I hope not.  I think my responses come from a connection of my mind and heart with what I understand of the God of the Bible and what I experience of Him at times.

Do I need a certain style of music to experience these things?  No, but I do find certain styles or songs more helpful than others.  Some of my most treasured memories involve less than note perfect musical arrangements, acoustic guitars, unassuming church halls, flats, or campfires under starry skies in the Carpathian mountains.  It’s just that for me, music can act like some kind of lightening conductor which I often find helpful.

Do I seek experience and is my attitude self-centred?  At times, yes – but hopefully, largely, no.

Is what we do at church really that different from the way people behave at their favourite band’s gig?  Surely there people are often abandoned and feeling some joy through music they can sing along to and own as part of their own life’s journey?  Could it be true that when Faithless sang, “God is a DJ and this is my church”, they were conveying the ideas of belonging, identity, community, self-expression, joy and release?

“Worship” sounds like such a redundant word in our post-post modern, post-church generation.  Yet, we worship the cult of personality, shopping, reality TV, materialism, career progression and a whole bunch of things that, whilst enticing, are merely a chasing after the wind.

I want to enjoy music, embrace the culture I find in the places God has placed me, stop my self-sanctimonious ways and be Christ-like wherever I am at any point during my week.  God knows I fall so far short at an alarming rate of frequency, but I hope and pray that we will strive for this together.

As I find it easy to be disillusioned with the church at large, and yet so grateful for the congregation I belong to, I am heartened by Rob Bell’s quote that “The word Christian is a better adjective than it is a noun”. 

Read. Think. Pray. Live.

“I have heard the big music

And I’ll never be the same
Something so pure
Has called

From “The Big Music” by The Waterboys


“I waited patiently for the Lord

He turned and heard my cry.

He lifted me out of the pit

out of the mire and clay.

I will sing, sing a new song

I will sing, sing a new song

How long to sing this song?”

From “40” by U2

I clearly remember the first time I heard “40” from the crackling vinyl that spun on our stereo in Aberdeen in 1983.  As Bono essentially sang Psalm 40 to a new tune, I heard a benediction that thousands could sing (and have sung) along to.

As I read the Psalms now, the words and language contain such brutal honesty, emotion, doubt, vulnerability, power and truth.  I often forget that many of them originated as songs and, therefore, a means of expressing oneself in more than words alone.  After all these generations the Word remains and the musical style is inconsequential. 

If we rewrote the Psalms today, how would they sound?  Broken and stripped back at times?  Angst ridden and frustrated?  Full of joy and wonder? 

I’d love to hear an album where artists were asked to find a Psalm that they could identify with and put it to music.  I could imagine a track listing including the minor chords and sombre tones of Leonard Cohen, the dirge of Nick Cave, the brokenness of Tom Waits, the diluted emo of Death Cab For Cutie, the conviction and political force of Woodie Guthrie, the sense of miscarriages of justice of Bright Eyes, the abandoned bliss of Polyphonic Spree, the elation of a Philharmonic Orchestra, the rush of a dance-floor filler, the anthemic gush of Coldplay, the cries from the workers of the barren fields we have raped to serve our Western comforts, the honest doubt of Pedro The Lion, the glorious noise of Aerogramme, the chaos of Iggy & The Stooges, the creative wordplays of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy, the communal sounds of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. 

It would sound unlike any “The Best Praise and Worship Album In The Word Ever Part Six Squillion” compilation.  Man, they should just make a raw and honest album like that…

What would your personal psalms read or sound like?

I came across something truly beautiful on another blog this week and it inspired this post.  Please click here.

(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace

Worship is so much bigger than songs, regardless of whatever style or tradition we might prefer.  Do we think too much about how worship makes us feel rather than what true worship might cost us?

My wife’s latest post has really got me thinking.  I would really encourage you to check it out here.

“It sounds like razors in my ears
That bell’s been ringing now for years
Some day I’ll give it all away
That’s how you sing amazing grace

Oh, can you hear that sweet, sweet, sound
Yeah, I was lost but now I’m found
Sometimes there’s nothing left to save
That’s how you sing amazing grace
Amazing grace
That’s how you sing amazing grace”

From “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace” by Low

The above is one of my all-time favourite songs.  The contrast between something that “sounds like razors in my ears” and the “sweet, sweet, sound” of recognising we were once lost but now are found is only gained through sacrifice and surrender.

P.S. Skip a coffee and purchase this song from iTunes instead.  It may sound quiet, but its textures and harmonies are richer when  played loud.

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