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.

It’s all over now.

On the 12th day of Christmas….

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This is the only Epiphany ‘rock’ song I know. I have used it so many times. A highlight of my gig going was once seeing this band perform the whole album that this song is from.

I like the quiet, reflective nature of the song. I like the sense of ‘we have seen and now what will happen?’ They had to go back by a different way. Maybe in one sense, they never ever went ‘back’- they couldn’t; they were changed.

I like this sense of Epiphany- there are no maps. Blogging has been part of me; the decision to stop/take a break means there are no maps. To grow you often have to go beyond where the maps exist.

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Indulge me with two more songs, since this is my last ‘Friday Music’. I have used these songs a number of times on here: they have influenced much of my writing and thinking and, one day, they will be my funeral songs.

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This is not my favourite U2 song, but it is the song that set me off on a journey years ago of  ‘there is more out there’; I still haven’t found what I’m looking for- I know, but I don’t know. These words always speak deeply to me about faith, reality and human nature. This song gave me the prompt to write an MA thesis on U2 and theology and taught me a lot about ways of communicating faith to people who might be hostile to it.

A prominent artist in the camp I used more readily identify with rewrote this as ‘I’ve finally found what I’m looking for’. Words cannot do justice to what I think about that, but it heightened my distaste for ‘Christian rock’ and gave me a distrust of those who, faced with mystery, lament and questions want to cover them up with easy answers.

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I bought a book about 20 years ago called ‘Grain in Winter’- a beautiful book of thoughts, insights and anecdotes from a minister who had retired early with illness. I didn’t ‘get’ it all at the time; I mostly do now. It encouraged me to think, see differently and be open to strange, sometimes disturbing, insights.

In it he had the lines ‘Ring out the bells that still can ring; forget the perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’. I was intrigued; I’d heard of Leonard Cohen but never listened to him. After getting that book I began to listen and found a prophet of the human spirit who helped me more than I can say.

If I had to chose just one song for a desert island I would choose this one. I always get something new out of it and it always moves me.

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In the 2nd blog entry I ever wrote on diggingalot.blogspot.co.uk, way back in June 2008, just before a sabbatical, I wrote these words (the Bible reference is from the book of Hosea and it was where I got the ‘diggingalot’ idea from. Even out of context, they feel oddly prescient about where I am now:-

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‘Sow for yourself righteousness;
reap steadfast love;
break up your fallow ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord.


I find those words really powerful at the moment. Maybe a sabbatical is a time to do just that- break up fallow ground, dig around a bit- work out what I’m doing, attend to stuff I leave or shut out.

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And now I take my leave of you: at least for a while. I may do more blogging, but I don’t know when. Thanks for reading what I have written and (sometimes) reacting to it. And now I leave, not quite wise, certainly not a king, to take my own journey a long way around the sea…

Friday Music

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On the 5th day of Christmas…

I don’t normally ‘do’ folk. In fact, I have a stock phrase about any music that I like that is classified as ‘folk’: I tend to say ‘It is folk, but in a good way’.

I got this ep for Christmas. Their rendition of this song got me and made me stop what I was doing.

It is a song I want to take with me into the new year: I see too many people whose stories are suddenly fractured by illness, accident or death. In realise that all we have is blessing and can go into a heartbeat. It is a cliche, but also true that life is too short- too short to not be kind, too short to not say ‘yes’or to short too not have a go.

We all have limitations- everything is not possible- and we are constrained. all that is true, but  what is the use of wings if not to fly…

Carols and memory

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On the second day of Christmas…

I will never tire of this song; in fact, I have posted it several times.

I went through a phase when I found carols to be mawkish, over sentimentalised and theologically inaccurate. Of course, they are all of those- and yet they are something more.

It is only now, that I am over 50 that I begin to see it- they are memory. As I sing them, I remember Christmases past; both events that happened and people that are no longer here. I have seen this on wards; people who cannot always cognitively perceive things that well due to memory loss, are able to sing carols word perfectly.People who say that they have little or no faith are unashamedly able to sing carols loudly.

All of them express joy in the singing and joy afterwards. Somehow the mood is lifted as memory flickers into life. Yet also, hope is reawakened for the future:-

‘It is because of the dark,

we see the beauty in the spark.

That;s why,

That’s why,

the carols make you cry.’

And even if it is quickly snuffed out- ‘Christmas is over’ (it is only the 2nd day of Christmas...), there is still the hope and longing that things could be different…

Friday Music

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This one doesn’t make the top 20 Christmas records or even the top 50, but I think it is beautiful.

It starts off as comedy; having a gentle go at religion but then slides into something deeper. My line manager talks of something called ‘an atheist spirituality’; this is not in the sense of anything organised or formal, but the keen awareness of the deeper things of life and a sense of wonder in them.

This song never fails to move me, with it’s evocation of family, community and togetherness.