Friday, March 28, 2008

Thirteen Words

I mentioned to Jared Ribble, from Nashville, in an email, how inspiring I'd found my visit there. And how helpful the DMHO DVD is - seeing those boys take a style of music I love, use it both presentationally and really worshipfully, make it an evangelistic tool, and do it really wholeheartedly and passionately - it is something that has genuinely touched me.

After all, I have felt for the last year that we need here to find a mode of evangelism that recognises our prime calling as a church: worship. We are not simply proclaiming Jesus in a vacuum, we are proclaiming Jesus and calling people to follow him as a part of his family here. So the way we proclaim Jesus has to resonate with who we are here. There has to be an integrity between the call and the life that follows.

The difficulty is, of course, that I have no model for making worship the main mode of evangelism in a church. I mean, evangelism is either about Alpha, a supper and a small group discussing stuff (which is great, and which we do), or it is the Billy Graham model - a meeting with a speaker. You can tweak the meeting (put it in a pub, have music, have theatre) but essentially everything is there to service the speaker and his (usually his) message.

If we do worship, there is a problem. Worship is for insiders. Outsiders, non-believers will be uncomfortable. Excluded. It isn't seeker friendly.

Yet it is what we are called to. How can God get it so wrong with us?

Jared replied to me that DMHO find themselves on a different trajectory. Having spent years doing church concerts/events/worship services, they are now convinced that in order to reach the unchurched they have to
Compete with the quality and presentation of a mainstream pop act
and that
Putting on a “churchy” big band show will have less effect on a non-believer than a show that competes in the secular market, but still has the message of the gospel.

Well, this made me stop and think. One of the enormous joys of my trip over the last couple of months was seeing other people's work and letting it evaluate my own. In many ways, this was one of the greatest gifts of those weeks. (The greater was simply meeting people: people beat the work they do every time for me!)

I love the fact that DMHO is undergoing a bit of a re-invention in order to pursue a vision of "reaching the unchurched". After watching both DVDs of the band which Jared gave me, I understand more of the problem of the band feeling like a "niche within a niche" that Denver spoke about with me. It's not just that with their previous show they're limited to the Christian market - it's a swing band in the Christian market; in the States, swing is pretty much right up there with all the other "novelty" acts. And I see that in order to get the message of the Gospel out to a secular, unchurched audience using all available gifts and talents, the quality, presentation and style of a mainstream pop act is the way to go for DMHO. I get it.

Incidentally, the incessant entertaining showmanship stuff that seems an integral part of the swing band scene in the States is simply almost absent over here. It's great to watch at first, but I see why they would find that this militates against them being taken seriously as a musical outfit. (By contrast, swing bands over here are almost dour, sitting stock still as they play music that cries out to look like it's fun, in order that we understand the musician playing it is a 'serious' jazz man...)

But our swing worship stuff is aiming a little differently to DMHO, I guess, because we're a church, not a music outfit, and because as a church worship comes at the centre of all we do - so that means we simply have to seek how to make our evangelism worship-centred too. We're not working away from that goal, but towards it.

Cos here's the big question: who are we aiming at with this form of outreach? For us, here, the answer comes like this. A worship event with our big band is almost a kind of "church-lite". Not always on a Sunday morning, so visitors don't feel like they have committed themselves for ever. Not always Communion, which most of our Sundays are. It must be musically great and really enjoyable. But also, vitally, and actually this is the hard thing, it must really be worship - so that in the midst of the family of the church, the guests (who are probably already becoming part of our extended family - by friendships and relationships and because of our various programmes with families and the elderly - though that means they usually won't be coming to us on Sundays yet) begin to see what our family is all about and begin to be drawn in further. Real worship is engaging. It can't be faked.
The challenge for us is to ensure that it is real and not just entertainment.

So we have different challenges. But I am growing in confidence with it for this reason: I don't for a moment believe there is only one right way to do evangelism! I see what DMHO does and love it because I see a heart and a way of using music that gives me confidence to go with my own heart. I am so grateful for that. The context, the vision, the outworking - wow, DMHO's is so different from my calling it is like chalk and cheese. But that heart, that passion, and a little of the gifting - this inspires me big time to push the boat out a bit with something I think maybe the Lord's gift to us here too.

Does this make sense?

We did a meal on Maundy Thursday, with me singing with our jazz quartet. Lots of guests. A family member of a regular church member came, and then came again to our main worship service on Easter Sunday, and after that service found me and said, "that was really inspiring!" A girl who has started to attend in the last few months (so I have no idea if she is yet really converted) brought a family member - who then also came on Easter Sunday - with two more of her family in tow, and they were overwhelmed with what was a fairly standard service for us.
Worship is our core value. So it becomes our core outreach. How dull am I that I am just learning this obvious truth!
I guess we have to find ways to make special event worship attractive to get people in; then (as I said to Jared in a coffee shop in Nashville, but you can find this at the top of this page any time) those 13 words I try to live by come into play, and indeed find a new resonance, a deeper meaning and a startlingly new take for me: my job is to worship God - His job is to grow the church.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Parachuting onto the Escalator

So I landed. Yesterday at lunchtime I got into Manchester and finally saw Dad and Lorna who met me at the airport and drove me to Mum's. Flight 18 of 18 over and done. Mum was pleased to see me too - as of course was Matty, who, faithful hound, simply clung to my legs and refused to leave me.

Then I drove down to Pontypridd this morning. You can see from the picture of my garden that the weather is lovely. And the forecast is for arctic conditions this weekend. Parts of the country will enjoy a white Easter. Derek, one of my church wardens, has been looking after the house well. And my post was carefully spread over the whole of the study sofa. Tomorrow we'll see what that holds.

Then it was time to unpack a little before getting ready for tonight's Maundy Thursday evangelistic meal. The hall was looking good, and Lesley had worked her magic in the kitchen. Numbers were a bit light as a stomach bug had attacked a group of the church after last Sunday! And poor Kirsty had pneumonia. Time for the vicar to get back into action.

We had a great time. Super food, and the band played well - George as reliable as ever, Dan

sounding good and relaxed, and Chris and Tom working brilliantly as our new piano/bass players. Tom isn't used to using an upright, but sounds wonderful, and I shall send him a thank you for his blisters. Chris is a star on the rise. With Ed so far away, it is good to have Chris on hand.

And next - Good Friday. An hour and a half's meditation. Then reading St Mark's Gospel dramatically on Saturday. And all of Easter to prepare. As my good friend Harry always said, the thing about going away is coming back; it's like parachuting onto an escalator. The ground is moving when you land.

But what an escalator! This is my family, right here, and it was fantastic to see them, to be with them, to feel the love amongst them. I loved being away. It was a one time experience. I met some people I hope will bcome good friends, and saw some things I hope I will never forget. But I am grateful to be back.

Thank you Jesus for home.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Final full day of the Sabbatical.

Seven weeks have flown by, gone in a whirlwind, the press of an enter key, the stroke of a pen. It seems like forever. It seems like no time at all.

When I wrote Salvation’s Song, in Cambridge back eight years ago, I took an entire year out. It was a hard year, a wonderful year, a life-changing year. Its journey was slow and gentle, its development crept up on me, though the big idea of that book - the cross as the place of ultimate worship - was a blinding moment of revelation that came as I drove in my old Mondeo from Watford back to Cambridge after chatting with Mike Pilavachi one afternoon.

This always had to be different. First, before going to Cambridge, I had really not prepared for that time to write. The idea only began to form at the end of August. I turned up in Cambridge on October 1st. This time, I have been preparing for two and a half years, the last of which has been quite regular prep, with the ideas and shape of this book regularly fermenting in my brain. So maybe I didn’t need the time I needed for Song, because I had already taken that time. I just needed the write-up time.

But secondly, this is a very different book. That was a simple, easy-read theology book. Hard ideas, (hopefully!) accessibly written. This is something else altogether.

I have two ideas I am peddling. Number 1: forgiveness matters more to the person doing the forgiving than to the person receiving it. Now, there are qualifications to be made on that. Repentance is the way to receive forgiveness, and without being sorry, we don’t get it - but as human beings we aren’t meant to wait till everyone says sorry before we begin to offer our forgiveness. Why am I so sure? Because as Christians we are to follow the example of Christ, who certainly doesn’t take that tack. If he did, the cross would never have happened the way it did. He couldn’t die for my sins till I was sorry for them. But instead, he dies first, and there is no guarantee I will ever repent. Yet still he offers forgiveness. And asks we do the same to each other.

Number 2: When, after teaching the Lord’s prayer, he goes on to comment that if we don’t forgive our neighbour we don’t get forgiven, this can be taken two ways. Either, the forgiveness we thought we had been offered gets removed (ie God changes his mind), or if we fail to get it it's because we never really had it in the first place. It has to be the second. God doesn’t change his mind on this central issue. And Jesus’ teaching here is to focus us on seeing that the sharing of forgiveness as the completion of being forgiven: if we have truly been forgiven, we will pass it on. What we have received, we will give away.

Or to sum both of those ideas up - we who have been forgiven become the forgiving. We who have been redeemed become the redeeming. We who have been saved become the saving in the world by taking what Jesus has done for us and passing it on.

Now. How to best express this?

In a blog, in this many words? In a theology book with Bible texts and references and quotations?

Or another way? I wanted to try something more creative. Perhaps a little different. So I went for that. It may never see the light of day. It may be terrible. I may not be up to it. I wrote a novel about these issues.

I don’t know if it’s any good. What I do know is that at church yesterday, the pastor led a great confession about the things we do that need forgiving, and that my heart was far more moved and my soul touched and brought close to God than ever normally is the case after writing these things and thinking them through in this way. And if someone might read these words and find themselves similarly impacted, then a little good has been done. It feels a bit like it did when I’d finished Song. Like I’d learned something. Like I’d been changed. Like I wouldn’t be the same again.

I can only pray that this moment lasts. The sunshine on the picture at the top - I am waving goodbye to all that. I am sitting by the pool in temperatures of 80 degrees - I am waving goodbye to that too. Stephen’s Path, the road here where I have been living in Florida - bye bye. Seven weeks away from the responsibilities of running the parish - that’s gone. I get back in a couple of days’ time, parachuting back onto the escalator. But this moment, the moment where I dimly see that the worship of Jesus on the cross is the sacrifice that offers forgiveness, so the worship of our church (always our first call) should be about becoming a Jesus-centred worshipping community that instinctively and always offers forgiveness - and that surely is a tie-in to my perennial search for how worship and evangelism work together - this moment I pray will last and last and last.

This moment is what my services in Wengen, my times in Rock’s cafe or at the Falken, my conversation with Tory over that sandwich (and his subsequent sermon line which has shaped my whole thinking ever since), my visits to Heartland and Falls and Nashville have all been about: I glibly say that the word "sacrifice" is a worship word and then focus on worship. But sacrifice is there for a purpose, and that purpose is forgiveness. This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

I have been asked endlessly, "Is this book a sequel to your first?" and now I discover to my surprise and delight, that the answer is "Yes".

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Nashville, Denver or Athens?

Where am I?

So this morning I went to church with Kenn Hughes, musical director of DMHO, to his Baptist Church. It was a great service - and a great band and choir. 25 musicians, over 100 singers. During one song, Darlene Zschech's "Worthy is the Lamb", I felt myself really lifted in worship. And there was a key change and a truly American moment in the orchestration (band stopped and choir sang through that key change) and it was still wonderful. A bit OTT for Pontypridd, but genuinely moving here, and I sensed the presence of God powerfully. Context is maybe not all, but it matters. Kenn works with a society that sends music ministries around the globe to aid missons in all sorts of places. We shall see, but I am interested in thinking how that may be a link for St Catherine's.

Then he and I met with Denver and Amy Bierman for lunch (at the second best BBQ place in town - according to Jared; Denver loves it, and I enjoyed it as much second time in two days as the first!) - Denver of course being D of DMHO.

It is a real privilege to meet these guys. Their work has been an inspriation for me, and to listen to them speak of what they are doing, how God is calling them on, how things are changing for them and how they are trying to serve humbly, was just a joy.

After lunch, Kenn took me to see the Parthenon. Or at least, Nashville's replica of it. No acropolis for it to sit atop, but still pretty impressive, I think! And therefore a brief trip to Athens (this place being known as the Athens of the South on account of its many universities and Country Music).

Another great day, and the last of my wanderings. Back to the airport soon and then Tampa for another 48 hours before heading homewards. In the service this morning, the emphasis was on saying thank you for the communion. I have an awful lot for which to be thankful, so much so that these words are scarcely hinting at the heart of that matter, or at the matter of my heart. But thanksgiving is large in my thinking. I have had again the joy of meeting with amazing people, and seeing God working in and through them.

Who am I to get this? Just one of the blessed. And, picking up a familiar themes to the three regulars out there, I guess now the blessed must seek to become the blessing.
I listened to a 'live' recording of DMHO on the plane on the way back to Tampa tonight. And more than ever I think we must do more with the swing worship as evangelism. It is something that is distinctly ours and which is, I believe, part of the Lord's gift to us. It will be hard work; but I am again inspired by meeting these guys and by what they do. By their music and their message. Now to think how to make our version of that work - and to act on those thoughts. O Lord, bless us!

Welcome to Nashville!

With airplane rides like this, who needs Disney? To say it was "bumpy" would be to say that Switzerland is hilly. I have never before been on a plane where people screamed. It was quite fun, in a bizarre "O Jesus get me out of here" way!

And then when on the ground I had the enormous pleasure of spending the day with Jared Ribble, drummer with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, and music producer here in Nashville. He is one nice bloke, and I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.

We had breakfast in town, before he showed me the music part of town (this is music city USA), where most of the studios are really converted houses. I met his business partner Sandy at one of these places, where we sat for a while by the most enormous mixing desk. Missed photo op.

We went into the city centre and played at shopping for stetsons. None bought. You should see the prices of hats here. We drank beer for real.

And then ate barbecue. At the second best BBQ place in town.
Followed by visiting a rather higher class restaurant where a friend of Jared's was singing. Jaimee Paul was stunning. A marvellous voice, beautiful poise and wonderful eyes - follow the link and enjoy for yourself. I bought the CD because she was something I had to bring home.

A great day, a real treat. Thank you Lord - for safely getting me here! And for blessing me so much in this place.

Friday, March 14, 2008

And now, the end is near

So I’m off to Nashville this weekend for my final jaunt, and then begins the long trek home.
Having finished the book last Friday, I’ve put my feet up and done nothing since - NOT!
I’ve hardly left the book alone. I’ve read and re-read it, fiddling with thoughts and ideas, with grammar and sentence structure, making sure all the continuity details work, and I’ve totally removed the short epilogue I’d tagged on the end. It needs something there - as it stands, at just over 124,000 words and 500 pages it ends far too abruptly. But what I had written won’t do, and for now I am not ready to try again. There will be plenty of time to find what should fill that slot.
There are passages that do not work. That’s OK: this is a first draft, and as I continue to hone it over the months and probably years ahead those passages will get sorted. There are times when the overall pace of the book is not what it should be. Again, if I’d got that right everywhere at the first attempt, I’d have been frankly shocked.

But there are places where it does just what it should. Times when I say what I want to exactly how I want to. And on the whole, given that I have attempted something here that is way beyond anything I have tried before, I am pleased.

I just know that there is a lot more work to be done! In bits and pieces, quietly, silently, turning what is now something with promise into what I hope one day will deliver that promise and reward any readers in the process.

Which isn’t to say this week hasn’t been restful: more sleep and less work and lots of sitting by the pool and enjoying the sunshine. Hope you like the photo of Ben trying to play his keyboard whilst Sammy the cat has other ideas!

So - Nashville. Jared Ribble, drummer with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, and Kenn Hughes, MD of the band will be my hosts for the weekend. DMHO is a great band, styling itself either as a Christian big band or as a horn led pop band depending on whether it’s their MySpace or their website you look at. I’ve had the pleasure of singing a couple of their charts with the National Big Band of Wales, and of chatting with Kenn via email for a while - he was really encouraging when I was doing the Every Breath CD. Now I get to meet these guys, and it is going to be a huge privilege for me, and a lot of fun. My last weekend here in the States for this trip, and time to enjoy!

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Karen and I drove down to Falls Church in Virginia this morning to worship at the Falls Church. Can you see what a clever thing they did with the names there?

The Falls Church is where George Washington worshipped. And here am I standing in front of the old part of the site, where they have the traditional services, and where they have plaques on the pews celebrating famous American revolutionaries and civil war folk who were part of this congregation. I don't think you have to be a general to get a seat here, but...

This photo is the new part of the church, where we worshipped, and it was a super service. Great music, a great sermon, and an hour and a half passed in no time flat. I thoroughly enjoyed being with this part of the Anglican family. Actually, the music reminded me very much of home. Most of the songs were songs we sing, and the sound of the band was very much the sound we make, though the format of the service was more what we do in the evenings than the mornings.
Michael Greto, whose wife Megan is cousin to Scarlette, best friend of Gill my sister (are you still with me) was in the narthex and we caught up before the service began. The sermon was on the problem of suffering, and finished with a point that regular readers here would recognise. One of the things that happens when we suffer is that we enter into part of Christ's suffering in order that we who are the redeemed become the redeeming in the world today. We who are the forgiven become the forgiving. We who are the healed become the healing.

OK, he may not have used those words, but the concept was HUGE in the sermon.

And finally, Harry, the smallest Welbourn has been entertaining us with dancing and percussion over lunch to make up for his lack of a mention with the flute and violin yesterday. Truly a star performance. Stellar. And here is the whole family in the sun outside the house.

Party Time in Maryland

It's simply wonderful to be here with Karen, Jerry, Stephen, Paul and Harry Welbourn. Plus - lots of other family members too! These guys were like one big extended family to me 18 years ago, when I stayed here for six months, and this has been a fun evening catching up.

Good food, good music, good company. K&J's elder two, Stephen and Paul had music performance tests today and both scored really highly - as well they should. Stephen played his Mendelssohn violin concerto segment and Paul his Debussy flute piece for us. Fantastic.

Then Lori and Karen and Megan and the rest of us sang hymns and show tunes. With equal reverence.

It quite took me back! When Karen was at Merton, evenings would often revolve around her at the piano and gatherings of friends singing. And now, much older and a little wiser, here were with some things not much different.

Friendship is a great gift. For which, many thanks.

Friday, March 07, 2008

And we're done. Sort of.

So we're done. Sort of. 124,137 words. 503 pages. A first version of the first draft. Glory!

There is an awful lot more work to be done, and I may even do some this next week. But my aim was to finish by tonight. Why? Because this has been wonderful, I have loved every creative minute of it - but it has also been solid work, and before I leave this country in 10 days time I would like a holiday!

Oh yes. So please note my wonderful praying people of St Catherine's, I would like some different prayers now please. Rest! Relaxation! A quiet mind and a still spirit!

I am so thrilled to have finished this draft of this book. Every target bar one has been hit. The one I missed? 120,000 words. But given I'm 4,000 over, I think that's OK. Give a guy a break!

Forgive me, OK!

The photo is of the current front page. It is headed, "The Forgiving", and carries two quotations.

One is from Isaiah 46.3-4.
"Listen to me...
You whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you."

The second quotation is from George Herbert:
"Forgiveness is the most necessary and proper work of every man; for though, when I do not a just thing, or a charitable, or a wise, another man may do it for me, yet no man can forgive my enemy but myself."
This weekend I'm off to visit Karen Welbourn, who was at Merton with me a million years ago, and her husband Jerry and the kids, and we will probably go to church at the Falls Church just south of Washington DC. I am really looking forwards to this trip. K&J hosted me for much of my six months stay back in 1990 when I lived over here, and their families were so wonderful it will be fantastic to see everyone. The last time I saw them was in 1995 - so I guess we will all have changed!
Many many blessings.
My heart is filled with joy, thanksgiving and praise.
Thank you Jesus: thank you Lord for this project, for this time, for these words. For all that is still to come. For this unbelievable opportunity. For creativity and discipline! For the beauty and power of the word and the imagination.
Thank you. Amen.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I guess there are milestones. One hundred thousand words feels like one. Though it's not a significant moment in the book - it is a significant moment in the writing. And if you look carefully you get to see my current working title and title page, with a quote from Isaiah on it.

Now, lunch.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday at Heartland

The first thing I have to say is that the building may be unprepossessing, but these are wonderful people. I was welcomed everywhere, greeted, spoken to, made to feel at home. This is a church that knows how to treat guests. I was impressed.

I had super time with Andy and Trisha, whom you can see here with their boys Jake and Eli. Andy led worship in the main morning service with his excellent band. Good to see Zach, who played drums at Furnace last summer as well – this is his home church too. The music was lovely, and we used some songs I knew well and some that were new to me but all were good for worship.

Preaching at the main service, and joining us for lunch was Ron Allen, pictured here with his wife Carolyn and I, after the service at Andy and Trisha’s for lunch. Ron has pastored this church for ages, though he is handing over leadership to Andy. Both his sermon and John Youse’s at the early service were great, though it was their hearts rather than their words that stick with me. I loved what I saw – big generous hearts winning people for Jesus.

At the early service John spoke on the question of what revelation is, and as he was doing so, I felt the Lord help me with something. I have been slightly struggling with exactly how I progress the story of my book. The next bit has been just escaping me. And now I am clear. John reminded us to simply ask for revelation – to be shown what we needed to see: thank you Jesus!

Oh, I promised yesterday to record a couple of things form Saturday night’s sermon. Here you go: "Resentment is deadly, and the first relationship it kills is the one with yourself". Or try this: “We’re often asked, ‘Can Christians dance?’ We’ve always felt the answer is, some can and some can’t.” I think that second one works on so many levels it is an absolute masterpiece.

At 6pm, there is now a ‘liturgical’ service run by Ben Sternke at Heartland – or at least, it is run actually off site. (It's called "Christ Community" and you can read more about it on Ben's blog - click here and scroll down till you find it!) Ben is running it for people who might not want exactly what the morning service offers, who need a way in from liturgical churches, who have life experiences that mean something more formal but still Spirit led is good, who can hold on to the structure and find God in the organised side of church – a sort of thirty-something post modern take on a Eucharist. Not that it is simply aiming at that demographic. And not that you have to have a beard if you are a man (I was so grateful when eventually someone else without one came in)... It was quiet, thoughtful, beautiful, and Ben’s preaching was my favourite of the weekend (which means it was most like my own). Good narrative theology. Giving people The Story by telling people the story. An excellent preach on John 9. And again, warm, friendly people making me feel at home. Quite lovely.

Thank you Lord for the privilege of being here. What an amazing joy to meet these folk. What a thrill to worship amongst them. Thank you. I tell you, these trips to worship with God's people in different places are eye opening and heart warming and spirit refreshing and totally wonderful. It will be years before I get to do this again. And I am loving every moment.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Happy St David's Day

Happy St David's Day!

I have now flown into Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is really in the middle of nowhere, to stay with Andy Booth. Fort Wayne gives the impression of being very rural, though the city at 300,000 people isn't far short of the size of Cardiff.

Andy, whom I know from the Flames of Fire/New Wine Cymru conference as a worship leader, is one of the pastors of a great church here, Heartland, and he is hosting me here for the weekend - he and a couple of his friends, Tom and Karen Maxwell, at whose lovely house I am staying.

It is cold and snowy! We're not in Tampa anymore!

Tonight I have been to another church in town, "The Chapel", where the pastor is called Rick Hawks, and he preached on the Prodigal Son. The church was interesting (with a band of 13 or 14, and a dozen singers who came in formation with hand-held mikes from the congregation at the start of the service looking like the old Coke adverts teaching the world to sing) and the sermon good; when I can find my notes I'll edit this and put a couple of comments in. I thought it was all stunningly professional. And I really enjoyed it, though in all honesty, I think a visit is all I could do; it wasn't a church I could live with. I get to see Andy's much more informal church in the morning. Andy took me along as he wanted to hear the preacher who is a friend of his and he had never been to the church before.

I did however take photos of Andy's worship space and of The Chapel before the service started. I'll try and upload the pictures later so you can work out which is which (there's a big clue in one picture!!!)