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Monthly Archives: April 2012

>> COMMON GROUND

The youth group that I help out with started again on Saturday night, and I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it. The moment our band, which is now made up mostly of young people, starts playing those songs, it feels like coming home. Maybe it’s just that it’s a place that appeals to me because it seems to be what church should be (by which I mean it’s full of people who love God and it plays songs that I know in a style that I find accessible) but I wonder if it’s not more than that sometimes.

I’ve been reading Philippians recently and one of the things that Paul talks an awful lot about in that is unity. All he seems to talk about is remembering that we believe the same gospel, and living like that’s the case with each other. He knows exactly what his focus is, and maybe that’s why he’s so full of joy. And so blunt.

That doesn’t feel like something that we’re very good at in the church much of the time, though. Or maybe it’s just me. I seem to love finding reasons why I don’t have things in common with people in church, reasons to not spend time with them. It’s like Kanye sings in his song Runaway, where he talks about how he always finds something wrong, and how gifted he is at finding what he doesn’t like the most. I know how he feels. I like finding reasons to prove that I am different to other people. Somewhere deep down I think I do it on purpose, so I can write them off right away and that means we don’t have to argue.

But when our youth group comes together and we sing those old songs, some of the same songs that we have been singing as a group for years, all of that seems to matter a lot less. We affirm the common ground that we have in spite of our differences, that we believe in Jesus, and that we believe he died and his death saved us, from sin, from self-absorption, from fear, from ourselves. Maybe that is what makes it so amazing, that it works because we are people coming together to sing the old songs and in doing so remembering that we see the same truth. We may be broken and confused, we may struggle with one another and with faith, but we know what knits us together.  Not every church is like that, but that is our strength, and it is a beautiful thing.

Is that what heaven will be like too? Will we step into the presence of God and hear that song that heaven has been singing for eternity, only to realise that we know all the words already? I wonder if maybe it is. And for that reason I can’t help looking forward, even now, to that day when will see Jesus in all his glory – and our differences will be put aside in awe and wonder at who he is, and all that he has achieved.

 
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Posted by on 24/04/2012 in God, Music, Other

 

>> BETH/REST (piano)

I love Bon Iver, and apparently he’s playing at Latitude Festival this July along with a whole line-up of other incredible musicians – Explosions in the Sky are there, as are Elbow and Laura Marling – but I’m not sure I can quite justify the trip to Suffolk.

But I also know his second album was divisive, and never so much as in his Bruce Hornsby moment that closed it. People felt like he’d over-complicated his music and lost the sweet simplicity that had been there on his first album. There were reports of people leaving his hugely oversold concerts early.

If they’d heard this wonderful solo piano version of Beth/Rest, stripping it back to the heart of the song, then maybe they would have reconsidered.

And if not, they could always have given their tickets to me.

 
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Posted by on 23/04/2012 in Music, Other

 

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>> ABRAHAM’S DAUGHTER

It looks like the soundtrack to The Hunger Games is a pretty amazing thing, with songs from The Civil Wars, Glen Hansard and The Decemberists on there. I’ve read the trilogy but not managed to make it to see the film yet, despite being employed to work with young people (I know, shocking right? Maybe I should go and see it this afternoon and put it on expenses), so I don’t know how this all fits in on screen.

That said, though, I love Arcade Fire’s contribution to the soundtrack, which is called Abraham’s Daughter. It’s a moody thing that sounds like it could have come straight out of the 80s, but the female vocal and quasi-Biblical lyrics are perfect, both given the content of the book and as a piece of music. Arcade Fire have always done that kind of cult-like intensity brilliantly; you just need to listen to their critique of American evangelical culture in the under-rated album Neon Bible to hear that. This is them on top form:

 
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Posted by on 19/04/2012 in God, Music, Other

 

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>> ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

I was introduced to Spaghetti Westerns by a friend of mine at university, who used to show up in my room (usually whilst I was trying to write an essay) and refuse to leave until I came down to his room and watched, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

In retrospect, it’s a miracle that either of us ever passed our degrees, especially because he also used to spend much of his time playing a “submarine simulator” and pretending that he was underwater in 1941. But he still got a first in PPE from Oxford, so there you go. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

All the same, I’m eternally grateful to him for introducing me to classic Westerns, and lately I’ve been listening again to Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to the films of that era. I still believe that his theme to Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. It’s below:

 
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Posted by on 17/04/2012 in Music, Other

 

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>> SHOULD THE CHURCH BE DEMOCRATIC?

[A quick note on this post: I wrote this a couple of weeks back and have been on the fence about whether or not to post it. I’m aware that it might be stirring up a hornet’s nest, and I’m willing to admit that there are contentious issues here, and I don’t have all the answers. But I’d value your comments as I still don’t entirely know what I think, and I’ve not figured this out yet by any means.

And I’m also aware of the irony of posting something like this on a blog. For that I’m sorry.]

I’m confused by the Church of England at the moment. Not so much confused about its theology, as I can see for the most part how it got to where it is now, but more confused about what I’m supposed to do about it.

Sadly for myself, I can’t buy into the argument that says that the Church of England is an organisation formed out of political necessity and so it must be one that acts in line with that. I know that is the case, but I still don’t think that is what it should be. I understand that the less hardline, more liberal churches are much loved by many, and even providing some useful services. And it’s not my belief that’s troubled by the recent debates about gay marriage, female priests or Rowan Williams’ successor.

I’m more troubled by whether or not I can still face being involved with this church.

Because I’m so tired of it all these days. I want to be involved on the ground – out there seeking to live a life in light of grace, learning how to be more like Jesus and how to see people like he did – and I want to tell a world in desperate need that there is good news.  And I appreciate that I need a context in which to do that, a church that is going to keep me anchored and away from dissolving into wild flights of fancy.

But when the church is this divided about the reason that it exists, about what its priorities are – when everything is up for debate in long, tortuous meetings filled with people talking at cross-purposes to one another – is it any wonder that we don’t seem to be achieving much?

I feel like it was probably easier in times gone by, because for all the flaws of the church’s approach, there was still, by and large, a broad agreement about what it was ultimately there for. It was there to tell people about Jesus so that when they died they’d go to heaven. And over time, people like Tom Wright have discovered subtleties in that, writing about how heaven is a redeemed version of what we have now, with God coming down and making all things news, but they’re basically variations on the story that people have told for years. But there are also others out there who have got bored with the old stories, and so they’ve taken those reinterpretations and subtleties as an opportunity to do away with certainty altogether, and now we’re trapped in these discussions that it’s getting increasingly difficult to resolve.

Back when Rob Bell released Love Wins, I happened to be in New York City and so my dad and I went along to his book launch. (I like Rob Bell, by the way. I think his nooma videos are terrific, as were Velvet Elvis and Sex God, and I actually think there’s some good stuff in Love Wins, too.) But what startled me most of all, at that book launch, though, was just how annoying I found him then, because he never gave anyone a straight answer to anyone, I think partly so that people couldn’t stick a label on him and pigeonhole him.

When he started out writing, I think I thought that he was searching for something, truth maybe, and asking all these questions to get there – and then, after a while, it sort of became clear that he wasn’t trying to get anywhere, not really, but asking questions just because that’s what he did. That was disappointing.

If I’m honest, I probably liked Rob Bell quite so much when I first read his books because I became a Christian in a church that had a very firm view of why it existed, and at the time that totally infuriated me. I felt like it could use some space to ask questions. However, that said, as a framework to be able to return to or a place of solid foundations from which you could explore the subtleties of faith, it’s turned out over the years to be amazing. (I’ve only recently realised just how amazing it really was.) It bought into the whole “preach the gospel as much as possible so as many people as possible go to heaven and not hell” approach, and its members were absolutely clear about why they went. Its leadership trained them around that aim, and so the church went out did what it felt called to.

And the church that I interned at after university believed it was called to be a house of prayer for all nations, and so it focussed its activities around amazing times of worship, around equipping people to speak to God in their own lives and developing a foundation of prayer. As a result it expressed itself very differently than the church I became a Christian in did, but it still did amazing things, and it continues to grow and to challenge others now, raising up amazing people of prayer.

They were amazing churches (both of them Anglican churches, incidentally), filled with amazing people. But they were amazing churches because their leaders had wrestled with these issues and prayed through them and worked out where God was calling them, and then their congregations had followed. And I’m not so sure that the level of discussion that the average person in church has these days – the amount of blogs we read, the articles we see linked to on social media, the sermons we hear podcasted and the endless debates in the papers – is really helping us as much as it is distracting us from actually going out and doing things with what we believe.

Not everybody can be a leader, or at least not constructively. It may be tragically unfashionable, but the church is hierarchical, and although everyone has a role, that doesn’t make it a democracy. It’s an organisation, and organisations have management structures (some of which are actually Biblical) and structures of authority, and a wholly democratic church is arguably something with more in common with the ways of political necessity than with the ways of Scripture.

Don’t mishear me. Authority has been tragically abused in some churches. It needs checks and balances; and leaders need to hear other voices, including those of their congregations, if only to help shape their thoughts. Churches need their members to step up when their leaders are doing something that contradicts the Bible (and I know of plenty). I’m not proposing a totalitarian regime.

But listen, our goal as Christians is not ultimately to build the church, no matter how wrong we think it is going. It isn’t. It’s to look to Jesus. You only need to look to Paul’s letters to see that most of them aren’t instructions on how to run churches, they’re about maintaining your connection to Jesus.

You may be an Anglican, but you’re a follower of Jesus first. You may be a Baptist, but you’re a follower of Jesus first. You may be a Pentecostal, or a Methodist, or non-denominational, but your identity isn’t primarily as a member of that church, it’s as a follower of Jesus.

Jesus said that he would build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, and it’s him that’s going to accomplish it. Our goal is to follow him as best we can, and follow his voice as best we’re able in the community of faith in which we find ourselves and under the leaders that we have over us.

Otherwise when’s the debate going to stop? Will it ever end? Sure, we should be concerned about improving, getting better and being drawn closer to God, but I wonder lately if this debate is really bringing anyone towards Him or whether it’s just distracting us. I hate to say that it’s the latter, but I think it probably is, and that just isn’t the way that things should be.

 
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Posted by on 03/04/2012 in God, Other