Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Soundtrack to the weirdest year...

 I haven't done this for a while, but I thought 2020 merited a brief comment on my playlist during this weirdest of years. I have spent a lot of time working at home, typing, preparing, reading, thinking, when I've not been in Zoomworld. And to keep the right side of sane, I've been playing some great music - some of it new, some of it the comfortable old favourites you snuggle up in when the world feels bleak and inhospitable.

So, I've listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, quite a bit of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. I've also rekindled a love for LCD Sound System, Dead Can Dance, Kate Bush and Vaughan Williams.

So here's a run-down of new stuff that has delighted my ears this year (in no particular order until the end):

Smoke Fairies, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home - languid, bluesy, beautifully played and sung.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways - when the 17 minute reflection on the consequences of the Kennedy assassination dropped  in the early Spring, I was astounded (I even reflected on it theologically for a mate'a church newsletter). But I was not expecting it to be followed by Rough and Rowdy Ways, probably Dylan's finest work of the century, a great record full of wit and wisdom and some great tunes.

The waterways, Good Luck, Seeker - I'm a long time Waterboys fan and this is up among the best that Mike Scott and his attendants have recorded. It's a mixture of rock and celtic folk; it's got a great cover of Kate Bush's Why Should I love You; and has a centrepiece - My Wonderings in a Weary Land - that ranks among one of the band's best ever tracks. Spiritual, odd, tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully realised.

Fleet Foxes, Shore and Sufjan Stephens, The Ascension dropped at the same time. They are good but I am still not sure what to make of them, especially the Stephens record which lacks his customary ramshackle guitar in favour of a Prophet 5 synth (I'm not sure I like the change...). But I shall continue listening and allow them to reveal their hidden treasures.

Deacon Blue, City of Love - this slipped out in the early Spring and I only noticed it in the autumn. It continues the late renaissance of one of my favourite bands of the 1980s. Following in the footsteps of The Hipsters, A New House and Believers, this album has a slightly harder edge to the mellifluous tunes, more prominent guitar and still the lush vocal support of Lorraine McIntosh. Ricky Ross gets better and better as a lyricist and tunesmith.

Ben Watt, Storm Damage - I didn't think Watt (one half of Everything but the Girl) could better Hendra, his 2014 first solo album for two decades, but he does so with Storm Damage. Watt is a great chronicler of the effects of the memory on the present, wonderfully gifted at conjuring up a sense of place and time - nowhere better than on Summer Ghosts. But every track on this album is a thing of beauty. Indeed, it would have been my album of the year but for...

Nick Cave, Idiot Prayer - strictly peaking this is not an album of new material. It is rather a solo live album where the Cave songbook is reimagined for solo piano and Nick's rich baritone played in an empty Alexandria Palace. I was supposed to see him and the Bad Seeds at the O2  this year, a gig that has now sadly been cancelled (the silver lining being the promise of a new album in 2021...). Idiot Prayer reveals the depths and strengths of 22 Cave classics from across his back catalogue. I loved 2019's stripped back, minimalist Ghosteen  and Idiot prayer captures that vibe across a range of Cave songs but brings a unity of theme and atmosphere to them. It is an unforgettable and immersive one and quarter hours of heartfelt and searching songs that offer insight into a poet's journey through grief in a year when so many of us had to make that journey. It is truly a gift.

So 2020 will not be missed for all sorts of reasons but it has given us a great deal of great music. I am sure it will have seeded  rich crop of great albums yet to be revealed in 2021. Bring it on...

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tuning into the voice that matters

This began life as an advent sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11 earlier this month. Then an edited version was published at A Broken Church, run by good friend Rich Blake-Lobb. For the sake of completeness, I am publishing the whole sermon here as I listen to the new Deacon Blue album, City of Love (who knew this band would still be soundtracking my life 35 years after I first heard Dignity?!)

So, do you remember those halcyon days when you entered a cafe or bar that was full of people - go on, stretch your mind back to those dim and distant times; you can do it! Everywhere you looked people were talking and your ears were washed by a sea of disconnected words.

Well that’s how Isaiah 40 opens. We enter a new scene in the book, 150 years after the first part ends and we are greeted by a host of voices. Here we are not so much invited into a conversation as assailed by a cacophony of speakers - 1-2, 3-5, 6a, 6b-7, 8, 9-11 - maybe five or six in all.

And at the heart of this is v6b-7, the voice of a reluctant prophet, someone offered a job who gives God a piece of his mind in a bid to turn it down. But it’s the voice that grows stronger and more urgent as this remarkable poem unfolds over the next 15 chapters. 

The voice in v6-7 is the voice of everyone who feels that God has paid them too much attention and he wants him to leave us alone. 

Like Job in 7:17-21 

Like Debbie we met when church planting near us in Peckham back in the 90s: 'I can't believe in him up there ‘cause of what's happened to me down 'ere'’. And she proceeded to tell us how she’d been treated by men, the council, her kids, and life in general…

Like Jack: no dad, not much mum, a litany of bad choices, reluctantly in our night shelter because it was marginally better than sleeping out on a frosty night, ‘but don’t talk to me about God,’ he snarled, ‘all I’ve had in my life so far is expletive deleted…’

Like Colin, an ad sales executive on the last paper for which I worked, gay, disabled, HIV+ who gave me a mug as a Christmas present that I still use to remind me there is no cure for Aids. I wished him a happy Christmas, told him what I’d be doing and he said he didn’t do Christmas because nothing good happens in the world and God was not as useful as his crutch. He didn’t live to see another Christmas…

The prophet puts into words what many feel: there’s no good news, look around you, all people are frail and fragile and God keeps blowing them over, like the scorching wind that blows across the Judean desert in the height of summer (6b-7).

And too often the source of the lashing wind is the church, God’s would-be mouthpiece, which snipes and snarls about lifestyles and choices without understanding what it's like to walk in the shoes of those it is addressing. 

The prophet who opens the collection of words in this amazing book (back in chapter 6) volunteered to take a message of judgement to people who would not pay any attention. 

But the prophet of this section doesn’t want that gig.

The voice of v6f is certainly aware of what’s gone before – ‘don't send me with a message like that, a message of the scorching wind that blows people away. Don’t send me with a word of judgement’. 

But his voice is only one of many in these verses and the others clamouring for our attention are suggesting that God has something altogether different in mind.

So Isaiah 40 opens with an invitation to listen, to tune in to the voices echoing around us, voices of dislocation and disillusion; to tune into the voice within us, fragile and uncertain; and to find God’s voice in it all.

There is a searing honesty in this opening section of the poem, a telling it like it really is, telling God how we really feel. Here were people languishing in exile, far from home, mourning the loss of family, of livelihoods, of good times with friends, of fixed points in their lives, 

people who would say a little later ‘my way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’ (v27).

People like us and our neighbours.

So, this is a great text for Advent; indeed this is really the only place to start an advent journey.

Because advent is a clearing of the decks, a bringing out into the open everything that upsets and unsettles us about the world, about our lives, about God, a time of being blown on by the scorching wind, breath of God so that we might be able to receive his word of comfort, forgiveness, solace and strength for the journey.

The voice that cries out in v3-4, is picked up in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, as John the Baptist blazes a trail for Jesus to arrive with a message of the coming Kingdom and a new world order, a world of peace and justice. 

Something is stirring, God is on the move, speaking comfort, sweeping into the lives of the unsettled, the broken, the forgotten.

Advent is the vital preparation for Christmas, for this arrival. It’s not about dusting off the decorations, sorting out our present wish list, still less about queueing outside Primark for the season’s must-have onsie. 

It’s about standing stripped by the wind of God ready for God himself to arrive along the highway prepared for him in our hearts and lives (3-5).

A voice says, God is coming (3-5, 9). This voice has heard him stirring up the nations, fermenting the rise of Cyrus in neighbouring Persia and the changes in the global political landscape that will at last lead to these exiles going home. 

God is still coming, whatever is happening in the world at large – things we welcome, things we wish were gone so everything can get back to normal – God is coming to break chains and set people free from sin and its all-too visible consequences: debt, poverty, illness, poor education, unemployment, violence and injustice. 

We’ve seen too much of that this week, this month, this year… We need God to come and make everything new. 

And God is comforting (1f, 11) God knows our pain and longs to gather us to him like a mum sweeping her child up in her arms. He knows what the voice in v6 knows - that we are weak and frail, that we’ve had enough, that we’ve used up all our spare energy just getting through lockdown and all it’s brought with it. The last thing we need is God arriving with a pep talk and a call to action. 

We need God to come and wrap us in his arms and say, ‘enough; that’s enough’ (as he says in v1-2). And because this is how God comes to us, it is how we are called to draw alongside our wounded and hurting neighbours, in God's name bringing his comfort and pointing to the light on the horizon.

And God is calling. He comes to comfort, seeking relationship with us, but we’re deaf and he needs to get up on high mountain and shout it out. Notice how he does it – not through a lecture or a sermon but in a poem, language that burrows deep into the heart of who we are. 

For in advent, God wants us to change way we feel about him and ourselves; so, there’s no new theology here, no fresh revelation; just a reminder of the old stuff (especially the exodus with its memory of a journey to freedom and new life): he’s reminding us that we are his, that he loves us and he will not leave us to face this alone.

And so as we walk into the cafe or bar with its clamouring voices, we also hear the sound system playing the wonderful Deacon Blue Christmas song:

You’ll know it’s Christmas

when the snows are beginning 

and someone’s singing a song.

If there’s a star in the sky

if the air is filled with the mystery

if there’s a babe in the church with a choir

you’ll know it’s Christmas…

If there is love in this world

if there is something worth struggling for

If there’s someone you’re holding close

you’ll know it’s Christmas

Really what Ricky Ross captures in his sly and subtle way is the spirit of advent. Advent is our invitation to get ready to meet him, in the things we think worth struggling for, in the people we hold close. 

In advent we get ready to welcome our God not as a conquering king but as a baby in a manger with the echo of choirs of angels, at the centre of an ordinary family’s celebration of new life and hope for a better future.

Advent is an invitation to tune into the only voice that matters among all the other voices clamouring for our attention. Because that’s the voice we hear in the things we think worth struggling for, things he thinks worth the struggle of coming to be with us

And as Ross sings in a different Christmas song,

I can’t carry you

you’ve gotta make your own way there;

this boy belongs to you

move a little closer, don’t be scared.

what better invitation do you need this advent to tune into the only voice that really matters?