Friday Grime

When your oldest son is 17, they have gone from being a child; in many respects, they are a man. Gone are the easy snaps on facebook and the sense that this person is ‘known’; they are a mystery and their reference points are outside the family. Growth takes a bit of getting used to.

But there are moments: moments when you connect.

My son likes ‘Grime’; I have no idea why- maybe it is the equivalent of rebellion, maybe is speaks some of his language and reinforces his developing world view. For one precious hour this week, when we were in the car, he began to play the songs that meant something to him and why they did.

Grime is a sweary genre, but this one stuck out. I like it- I see in the social commentary something of the world view I had at the same age, although the style is very different.

That collection of moments was very special…made even more so when he began to play what he called ‘old school One Direction’ (to me, they are recent) and we sang together at the tops of our voices, the connection real, but unspoken.

Lower: some unsettling music for Friday.

Sometimes uneasy listening is the best kind of listening.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as much in love with an obvious tune as the next person, but a song, an album that you have to work at is often more rewarding.

I’ve liked Low ever since a friend introduced them to me over 20 years ago. I liked their loud/quiet, the songs that seemed to defy categorisation (Slow core‘ anyone? I thought not...) and the moments of real and fragile beauty made all the more apparent by what surrounded them.

Even though I know some of their songs very well (‘Death of a salesman’, which I think is one of the most profound songs ever written and one of the few that I can play and sing without chord charts) I never quite ‘know’ them; they are impossible to define.

I’ve seen them play half a dozen times in both large and small venues and always been moved by the experience: it has often seemed more like a secret cult at worship than a mere gig; sometimes you can hear the cliched pin drop. Give me that many times more than the facebook photos of ‘Look, here we are paying stupid money to sit 200 meters back from someone really well known whilst we drink overpriced beer’.

The genesis of their new album has been covered elsewhere (Google ‘Double Negative’ and read the reviews), certainly better than I ever could. Is it double their usual slow and introspective mix, or do two negatives make a positive? I think a bit of both.

It took me several listens to get into before its charms began to weave their way into my soul. Like life, it is full of ‘uglybeautiful’ moments; a song has moments that jar, soothe and then jar again. This means that when the beauty comes, it is all the more startling. Even after 2 weeks of living with it, I am still playing it and finding new things to appreciate and move. It is not the kind of album to listen to in bits or as background. I could go on, but I’ll close with the last song: I like the way that this homemade video uses feet to show that the journey goes on.

Hold On….

I’m a sucker for an honest song sung with a broken voice.

I don’t have much time for new year resolutions; give me the slow, steady change, rather than the dramatic, but these lyrics have been resonating for me:-

‘Oh, your old hometown’s so far away
But inside your head there’s a record that’s playing
A song called “Hold On”, hold on
Babe, you gotta hold on
Take my hand, I’m standing right there, you gotta hold on’.
Sometimes those words find me in tears.
I’m not in favour of grimly holding on when nothing is working, but I don’t get this New Year thing of ‘the new me’; if I exist at all, it is in community- I like the African idea of ‘ubuntu’- I am because we are.
I’ve been thinking that among the most important things to hold on to are the bonds of friendship, relationship and faith. Not rigidly or grimly, but firmly through life’s jumps, canters and falls- I’m 53 next month and I’m tired of reinvention, ‘freshening things up’ and ‘revisioning’, particularly in these important aspects of life.
I guess it is just important to hold on and notice the small, glorious stories. At least I think so.

The Sea

On New Year’s Day, we went for a long walk by the sea. Despite the relative warmth, it was bracing; several hours later, writing these words, I can still feel my skin tingling.

In the words of the song, I love to walk by the sea. That’s not totally true, I ‘need’ to walk by the sea and in as much as I still get ‘preachy’, everyone else ‘needs’ to walk or sit by the sea.

I need to see something bigger than me and something that has existed long before me and will do so afterwards. I need to be around something that I cannot purchase or contain. As far as I have a label for anything I believe in, in this post-evangelical way of being, I need to be around something I cannot control, plan or assess, but something that just ‘is’.

And I need to feel wonderous and lit up inside.

And I was.

Friday Music looking out to sea…

I took this nearly 2 weeks ago looking out to sea on a wilderness retreat. I think that shortly after I took this I fell asleep on the same rock and lost an hour. I didn’t fall into that same sea.

This is not the greatest photo in the world but it reminds me of the sheer unadulterated bliss of lengthy periods of looking out to sea and becoming lost in the sound of the crashing of the waves.

Each time I do this on a Scottish island retreat I can hear this music over and over again:-

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..and each time I hear this music I am taken back to that still place…

In the wilderness, but it’s not so bad:8

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I used to somewhat pass over stories and individual lives. Not entirely, but there was always something else to do- something that was more ‘pressing’ & sometimes the focus was on getting people to do things rather than listen to who they are.

I guess that we need planners, people with big ideas and strategy for churches. Sometimes it seemed to me that the people who talk of them did do so whilst ignoring the stories of others, viewing people as ‘blocks’ to ‘the project’or at least those stories of those who didn’t fit and can’t be healed or fixed. Perhaps that is too harsh, but having sat through meetings (true of any organisation) where big things are discussed, individual lives can be forgotten.

I wanted to have those big ideas, but I wasn’t very good at them or at least very energised by them. I wanted to hear the stories of those who would take a time to tell them. I think I began to move more in that direction in the latter years of full time ministry and people allowed me to do so.

I could not see that being a feature if I moved anywhere else. All I was seeing was meetings, meetings and more meetings to deal with the reality of a declining denomination and the increasingly onerous demands of charity law.

Now I get to hear stories; lots and lots of stories. Except this time I feel no pressure to mould them to a predetermined narrative: I ‘just’ have to hear them. Many of those stories have not been told; people have never really trusted anyone with them. When it happens, it is unutterably precious; the glory of a single human soul.

That’s why I have this song; pretty much my story over the last few years- I had an idea/a calling/a feeling/a direction of travel and it seemed that I would have to lose that and ‘grow up’….. and now I don’t; I’ve got it back.

Deo Gloria.

On venerating your child

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Our youngest child was selected for the Cleveland Schools’ cricket squad in the last week. In addition he is coming to the end of his second close season spell with Yorkshire Pathways Bronze level; that puts him in the top 80-100 children of his age group at cricket in this county. He bowls leg break & googly (if you don’t know what that is, look it up! The picture above, of England’s Adil Rashid, gives some idea of the contortions neccesary) , which is the ‘holy grail’ of bowling; at one time it was as rare as hen’s teeth. It is notoriously difficult to master and when he is on song, it is a beautiful thing to watch as the ball swings one way through the air, pitches and then moves the other way. At times I have watched him in the nets & seen good batsmen frequently flailing at thin air in frustration as they cannot ‘read’ him.

Of course, with sport, it could all end at any time. Teenage years kick in, injuries happen,the selections get tighter and someone doesn’t ‘make’ it, academic pressures become more intense etc etc, but at the moment, both children have a combination of academic ability, opportunity) and sporting gifts that I never had.

I could go on for longer; naturally I am proud, but at the same time something in me doesn’t feel right to talk in this way. In the same way, when our oldest child did better at GCSEs than we expected- in fact did really well- I did not post the full details on social media; it doesn’t feel right to crow in this way.

I’ve had this passage underlined in a book for a long time:-

‘The problem for someone like me who desires that his children lead successful, competent lives, is knowing that the cost of this may at times be insensitivity to others, that in urging them to do well I may be urging them to be inconsiderate, lacking in thoughtfulness about others. In other words the Christian values of community and equality are not the easiest standards to hold up when you’re also interested in perpetuating your privileged situation in society through your children and your own behaviour’. (Robert Coles in Hirsch & Hirsch  (2010) p163)

There is a temptation in those of us who have faith to live lives of ‘practical atheism’; as long as you do your ‘religious duty’ the rest of your life is your own business. I exaggerate of course, but when I hear discussions among middle class believers about finding a ‘good church’ (which is what exactly?) the words of an old Divine Comedy song come back to mind:-

‘The cars in the car park were shiny and German,

Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon’

which puts the point rather more succinctly.

No answers at the moment, apart from trying to avoid the ‘competitive dad’ huddles as parents jockey for position, teaching your children to be proud, yet not to crow,  look down on others or be envious of those who have more gifts,being a bit more thankful when you are tempted to whinge at life and realising that all of this is temporary and could grow or cease at any time and lots of good, wholesome things like that. etc etc

Yet at the same time thoughts dog you; is this enough? Have you got it right? Or are you really doing anything differently to anyone else?

…maybe not…

Christian music (or why some music is plastic)

I was listening to an old Horace Andy album a few days ago and this popped up:-

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I was immediately captivated by the simplicity of the tune and the honesty of how he sang it: it moved me, in much the same way that Stormzy ‘Blinded by your grace’ did. I have almost no knowledge of Horace Andy (although I’ve seen him with Massive Attack), but I believe that he is a Rastafarian.

It spoke to me as it seems so unforced; in the middle of what you normally do in your profession, you sing about your faith/view of the world as it is natural to do so. In other songs it might be hinted at, but it is not dominated by it, because you sing and make music because that is what you do.

I have a blind spot when it comes to ‘Christian music’; mainly because when as a young Christian I was introduced to it, it seemed, well ‘not real’: overproduced, simplistic lyrics, pale pastiche of established style that was just ‘borrowed’ without any feeling and just…bland. At that point I wanted to yell ‘The king has got no clothes on’.

That feeling has never left me. From time to time, I’ve tried out the latest Christian ‘big thing’ and have usually been disappointed for much the same reasons. I’ve often wondered about the artistic discrimination of those who uncritically consume such music or whose only foray into ‘secular’ music venues is for the ‘safety’ of a Christian experience (mind you, I’ve also wondered what this says about the theology of mission there, but that is another story). I think it was the record producer T.Bone Burnett who said something like if you were a bricklayer who was a Christian and make a poor job building something, merely spray painting the word ‘Christian’ on it doesn’t make it any good.

I will continue to look; I can’t write anything off, but I’m not hopeful: leave me with those artists who are out there in the normal market place and whose faith breaks through like rain on a sunny day (Cash, Sufjan Stevens, U2, Damien Jurado et etc), but save me from those who have the sun turned up to 11 and any doubt or nuance tip-exed out.

Tempus fugit. A lot.

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There is a line from Dark Side of the Moon’ that goes: ‘Then one day you find, 10 years have got behind you’.

I’ve just realised that it is around 3 years this week since I had my leaving service from being a Methodist minister in a regular church appointment. My local friends tell me I am ‘defrocked’; I’m still very much ‘frocked’ (although mostly in pantomime).

I don’t know what I imagined on that day: we still had nowhere to live (that is a long and painful story & one reason why I still don’t preach regularly), I had no model of what the future looked like, it was nearly 20 years since I last had a contract of employment and I had no live model of what spirituality looked like outside of being a rev within a church.

3 years later and I’m still standing: sometimes that has been ‘just standing’ and sometimes it has been ‘thriving’. Mostly it has been somewhere in the middle; often a mix during the same day.

In the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of thinking out loud about what these 3 years have meant. Once thing I have learned, however, is that change, huge change is possible and I never thought it would be for me. Most of us spend a huge amount of time, energy and money trying to fight it off and ultimately we can’t. At best, it makes you feel more ‘alive’: the highs are higher and the lows are lower than you’ve ever felt.

Nothing is sacred. Perhaps because of that; everything is sacred- even the bits that you’d prefer to skip.

Friday Music

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My older son listens to Grime, but he is 16.  It is not something I could ever get into: a (nearly) 52 year old reverend getting ‘down wid da kidz’ would be, I fear, the height of incongruity, although I appreciate the dexterity and skill of some of the artists he has played to me.

It was through him that I first heard of Stormzy: ‘Shut Up’ is catchy, but not my style. However, later I heard ‘Blinded by your Grace’; it didn’t sound very ‘Grime’, so- curious-I listened to it, listened to it again and listened to it once more.

I searched for blogs about it, as I was taken in by the joy and the theology therein. I couldn’t find one, apart from one very evangelical one that sounded as if the reviewer was sucking a lemon as he wrote about Stormzy’s life not being compatible with Faith & as he damned him with stern gatekeeping.

Yes: from what I’ve seen and heard, there are inconsistencies in his lifestyle, but, there are many in mine; I wouldn’t say that many of my actions are very ‘Christian’. However, that is not the point for me; sometimes, isn’t enough just to be captured by the joy and exuberance of what you are listening to?

Maybe it is enough to be open to whatever fragment of Faith that is offered by any artist and rejoice in it and see how it lights your own path. Perhaps the reviewer’s theologically correct, yet joyless and judgemental review is actually much further away from any Gospel than Stormzy’s  hopefulness. Indeed, having looked at the short ‘Gang Signs and Prayer’: Christian iconography pervades this deeply moral, yet uncomfortable short.

I like this version of the song most; beautifully shot in a South London estate; most probably the one he grew up in and intercut with images of people searching for Grace and redemption: I find it really moving and very powerful.

Music begins around 1:20 if you are impatient; but don’t be.