eclectic ecclesiastical extolation*

I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to my preferences for ecclesiastical music. I like a lot of the modern songs and hymns. I like choral music (Handel’s Messiah anyone – in full, not just the Hallelujah Chorus). I like some older hymns. I like simple chants. I like harmonies. I like singing along to a single instrument (or even a capella) and to a multi-instrument group.

There are two criteria against which I tend to evaluate my preferences: the first (and most important) is whether it helps me in my following Jesus – if it doesn’t then it doesn’t tend to last long in my ‘playlist’. It could be inspiring, challenging, thought-provoking, worship-enabling, encouraging, comforting and even prompting me to remember past moments in my faith-journey (‘And can it be’ was sung when I was baptised). However I relate to it a song or hymn will be one to which I will gladly return if it points me to Jesus.

The second criterion is more difficult to nail down, and varies for many of them according to my mood. It’s the ‘ear worm factor’. At different times songs or hymns will get into my head and remain there. No matter what I do the tune and words will be playing gently in the background as the sound track to my day. This is even more subjective than the first criterion so I need to be careful that this is not a major factor when I am choosing songs or hymns for a service. I tend to choose those that resonate with the theme of the service.

worshippersBut there are some (a few) that seem to transcend the second criterion and resonate with me regardless of how I am feeling. One is the hymn we sang at the end of the service in which I was preaching yesterday:

LOVE DIVINE, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down!
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find Thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee!
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place;
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

Charles Wesley

The words of this hymn are so rich, and the tune to which we usually sing it (Blaenwern) is so powerful that I can return to it again and again and find it enriching and blessing my relationship with Jesus. If you have skimmed over reading the words please go back and read it slowly.

Have you done that?

No? Go on.

Please. It’s worth it.

Isn’t it astonishing? There is so much in it. Yesterday I was speaking about how Jesus offers us fresh starts and realised that this is incorporated in this hymn too – we are being changed, restored, improved, enhanced as the Spirit of Jesus fills us. And that’s there in the text of the second and fourth verses.

The heart-felt prayer of the tormented soul that is wrestling with the human tendency to let God down – “Take away the love of sinning” – finds its answer in divine love: the closer we are as followers of Jesus the more we are drawn to him and the less attractive other options seem. There’s no point in God taking away the love of sinning if it is not replaced by something else – the love of goodness, godliness, holiness – because otherwise we will fill the void with something else and find ourselves back in the same place.

It’s a welcome sound track to my day – what’s yours?

Be blessed, be a bles-sing (see what I did there?)

*another new word from the Nick Lear dictionary – meaning worshipping God ‘to the max’

shiver down the spine songs

I was a student, studying for a Law Degree. I had heard from a friend that U2 had a new album out and he was raving about it so I went to a local record shop (there were a lot more of them around then) and bought ‘The Joshua Tree’. I took it back to my room, took it out of the gatefold sleeve (look it up on t’internet younguns) and put it on my turntable. I plugged in my headphones and turned up the volume, lay back and started to listen.

I was not prepared for what happened next. My ears were treated to an amazing blend of harmonies, guitar sounds, rhythms and vocals that sent shivers down my spine (the album still does that to me). The lyrics were completely absorbing and challenging. I found myself melting into the music and wallowing decadently in what became an immersive experience. I appreciate that it won’t be to everyone’s taste but listening to that album still remains a vivid memory for me (as you may be able to tell from the anecdote above). In fact I may well revisit that experience when I have finished this bloggage as I am spending the morning praying, reflecting and reading.

The moment when I was almost moved to tears was when the guitars started gently, the drums and bass came in smoothly and then Bono started singing:

I have climbed highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you
I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
I burn like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the eternal angels
I have held the hand of the devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I believe in the Kingdom come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

To me these lyrics represent a journey of faith. I don’t know what the ‘what I’m looking for’ was for Bono, and to be honest I don’t want to know. For me it’s about spiritual dissatisfaction and longing – we haven’t made it yet, we don’t have all the answers, we want more of God. We can look for God in all sorts of places and while we can know the certainty of ‘the Kingdom come’ and of our relationship with him made possible in Jesus: ‘you carried the cross… you know I believe it’, there is always much more for us to discover of God and about ourselves.

The moment we think we have all the answers is the moment when God laughs loudest.

The lyrics could also be reflective of the Lord’s Prayer – praying that God’s Kingdom will come and his will be done on earth now as it is in the heavenly realms. That is not yet a reality: we have not yet seen it completely. There are so many places, people and events in this world that don’t acknowledge God as King (so his Kingdom hasn’t been fulfilled there yet) and we long to see his justice, love, peace and wholeness.

To me this album and that song were eye-openers. God spoke powerfully to me through a song that was unlikely to be sung in church. He spoke gently to me that is all right to be searching – in fact he rather likes it – and that a relationship with him is a lifetime’s work not an exam to be passed. And it is fine to be dissatisfied with the world how it is because he’s not satisfied with it either and he’s inviting us to work with him to help his Kingdom come in the places we live and work and play.

What's the link between this and a pencil? There's a generation growing up who have no idea!

What’s the link between this and a pencil? There’s a generation growing up who have no idea!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Ding Dong merrily on high volume

I can hear the sound of ringing. No it’s not Christmas bells! Last night I went to a concert with one of the world’s biggest Paul Weller fans, to whom I happen to be married. It was a concert in support of the charity Crisis and Paul Weller was the headline act. It was loud! (And yes I am aware that that may well be a sign that I’m getting older.)

I confess I am not one of the world’s biggest Paul Weller fans, but I recognise that he has written some decent tunes (my wife Sally will claim that is a serious understatement) and is an extremely accomplished musician and singer. I was looking forward to being able to hear him sing some of those songs with which I have become familiar.

mixing deskThe problem I found with last night was that the sound levels were abysmal. Because the volume of the instruments was so high they had to turn up the vocal mics even higher and the voices were distorting terribly. We could not hear the lyrics and even one of the world’s biggest Paul Weller fans was struggling to discern what he was singing. I could not understand why the sound technicians were not doing something about it until I stood near the back where they were based and discovered that it sounded better where they were stood (albeit not perfect).

Reflecting on this experience, and with ringing still in my ears, first of all I want to speak up on behalf of sound and video technicians in churches. They are always the unsung heroes if everything goes smoothly because nobody notices them. If there is a loud squeak, however, or the wrong slide comes up on the screen then everybody notices. I was at a church recently where there were one or two technical problems. I got really irritated by a man who was stood right in front of me who insisted on turning around and staring at the technicians every time something went wrong. In the end I shifted slightly so that I was stood between him and them in an effort to protect them and perhaps persuade him to concentrate on worshipping Jesus.

So first of all, two pleas on behalf of our sound and video technicians. The first is that if something goes wrong, try to avoid turning around and staring at them. It won’t help them, they’re trying their best, they know something is wrong. The second is to encourage you to thank them, acknowledge their contribution that has enabled you to worship Jesus.

The other thing that I reflected on from last night’s experience is to ask whether you are able to hear the lyrics. Sometimes the volume of all our preparations for Christmas is so loud that we are unable to hear the good news of Immanuel. Sometimes we are so busy rushing around, sorting out, planning, making sure everything is in place that the volume of the hassle and bother drowns out the voice saying, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” And I’m not just talking about all our present buying, wrapping, card writing, food buying and so on. In churches we can get so busy preparing everything for Carol services, nativity plays and so on that even though we are desperate for others to hear the message of Christmas, we can’t hear it ourselves.

What is God saying to you this Christmas?

Be blessed, be a blessing


For some peculiar reason, last night I started speculating about how different song titles could be ambiguous:

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for could be about a man’s search for his car keys, or about a phone call from a lengthy shopping trip to explain why they will be late home.

Whatever you want could be a generous statement to a loved one, or it could be a grudging statement to someone who is fed up with an indecisive companion.

Fix you could be a repairperson’s statement of intent when confronted with a broken item, or it could be about taking a cat to the vet for ‘that’ operation.

Ambiguity can be funny, but can also be distressing. If you have a satnav you don’t want it to say, “It’s around here somewhere,” you want precise directions. If you are going to meet someone in a busy place you want to know how you will recognize them rather than wander around aimlessly looking hopefully at people and getting some strange looks back at you (yes that has happened to me).

And when it comes to matters of eternal destiny do you want to hear, “Well you might be okay,” or, “Today you will be with me in Paradise?”

Christians can be accused of arrogance compared to other faiths because we are confident of our eternal destiny, but Jesus was quite clear that through faith in him we will receive eternal life. If we have any doubt it is about our own indecisiveness, not about his failure to offer certainty.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

>can’t get you out of my head

>Abstract NoteHave you ever had the experience where you have had a song in your head that you just can’t shake? I wonder how many of you started thinking of the Kylie song when you read the title and can’t get it out of your head now. It’s not so bad if it’s a song you like, but it’s agony if it’s something like ‘Agadoo’!

I now wish to apologise profusely to anyone who, as a result of reading the previous sentence now has ‘Agadoo’ bouncing round in their head and can’t shake it. ooops! It’s reminiscent of the line from a spoof of ‘Agadoo’ by the Spitting Image team years ago – the Chicken Song – “Though you hate this song you’ll be humming it for weeks!”

I had a similar experience yesterday. I remembered the first line from Psalm 121 and it would not go away. In many ways it’s the same thing because the psalms are songs. This doesn’t happen often but when it does I tend to take notice of it.

A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 

He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you— the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 

The LORD will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. 

(Psalms 121:1-8)

In turn this reminded me of a song based on this psalm that I used to sing when part of a youth choir in my home church in Torquay. It has the refrain: “He will not let you fall” which is repeated several times.

What did all that mean? Was God trying to tell me something? Had I eaten too much cheese?

Lifeguard ChairUntil or unless something more significant comes along I am taking it that this is an encouragement to trust God in all circumstances. It also needs a little understanding. The psalms seems to suggest that nothing will go wrong for believers, but we know that is not the case. As I read it I was reassured that God is with me, he is watching out for me, he is helping me, he is guiding me, he is protecting me from things of which I may never know, and he will never let go of me.

A song-related trick you can play on your friends who don’t read this blog, AND WHY NOT?

Step 1
Tell your friends that you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of songs and that if they give you any name you can sing them a song that contains that name. (You can make it the subject of a small non-monetary wager if you like).

Step 2
Your friend gives you a name (probably really obscure, for example ‘Ermintrude’)

Step 3
You think for a while and then sing:
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear [Ermintrude]*, Happy Birthday to you.”

*insert the name they gave you here!

Enjoy the admiration and awe that this generates among your friends, or start running