Tuesday, March 22, 2011

a little driving music

I've been on an iTunes drive. My PC has died, and now my laptop is ill, so a new computer is in the offing - and in the meantime, I've been letting my iPhone take the strain. As it won't actually sync with this laptop, I've had to buy some new music. Hence, iTunes... 

OK. I'll start with the worship stuff. Then some jazz. And finally a classical blitz. 
A couple of years back I bought (and genuinely loved) Chris Tomlin's Hello Love. I still listen to this a lot, and it's now available here with JD Walt's My Beloved as a bonus track - a song we use a lot. Beautiful. The whole album is just great. So I bought the follow-up, And If Our God Is For Us with high hopes. Always a mistake. Some of it sounds good, but pretty much all of it sounds bland. I mean, the title track is monumental in a monumental kind of way - but can I remember a single tune? When I listen to it, do I think, "We must sing this at church?" No and no. With the previous album, I not only thought "Yes!" but we actually do sing the songs. 

Still full of hope, I followed up this purchase with Here For You from the Passion movement in the States - think Soul Survivor with accents - as I'd seen that early sales had sent it to no.11 in the Billboard charts, so it must be good, right? Chris Tomlin headlines, but there are lots of other guys in the mix. 
Well, it's more varied than AIOGIFU, (not a tough ask), but again I was disappointed. I remember buying the Passion album with How Great is Our God on it & thinking, "Wow! So 'live' worship albums can sound really good!" This sounds really...the same. I guess I will listen when I need background worshippy type stuff. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe I'm just too old. 
And then along comes a contemporary worship album that tells me I'm not too old for something if it's good. Lovely lovely Tim Hughes. Love Shine Through is not consistant. It isn't brilliant from start to finish. But it's title track does show Chris Tomlin just how to sound monumental and memorable all at the same time. And it's opener Counting on Your Name (you get it several times on the Deluxe version) has a typically strong hook on an album that is all about the hook (and I'm tempted simply to list nearly every chorus). Though for me it's the softer tracks that catch me - often the way with Tim's writing. Keep the Faith is a gem. The gentler version of At Your Name is beautiful - though both versions raise a pet peeve of mine. Please, Yahweh is not God's name and there's no reason to spoil a wonderful song with such awful cod-theology. Yahweh is an anglicisation of an unpronouncable word too holy to say or sing. If you want a name for God, try Jesus - there is no other name given to us. Yahweh is theological balderdash. And though I will use this song, sorry Tim - it will need a re-write just here.  

Apologies. I'll get off my high horse. Because this is a great worship album, and you should have a copy. Now.

Another record on my iPod comes from 1953. I had bought a brand new big band recording, The Syd Lawrence Orchestra's Night at the Movies. Hmm. It sounds great on some equipment and OK on others, which happens, and at times I want to turn the vibrato on the trumpets off and then add a little to the trombones, and just occasionally I wish they'd splashed out on a real male singer... I love these guys. They are a great touring band. and the best of this album (for me Marcel McTattie LeCoq) swings magnificently - and yet I kind of come away wanting, you know, a bit more? 
Which is what I got from my 1953 album. A 'live' recording of Ted Heath & His Music At the London Palladium in the days when Decca knew how to record a big band. Who cares it's in mono? It is amazingly recorded. The band is phenomenal. Each soloist superb. Ronnie Verrell on drums a powerhouse. A mix of swing, be-bop, ballads and all-round big band jazz pleasure, this is how to do it. The Champ & The Hawk Talks stand out for me - but then so does every track. At around £4 as an introduction to British Big Band music - buy it. It's not the easiest listen, but it's great. I actually own the 1953 LP for this, as my dad bought it back in the day, and I snaffled it off him. The download misses out all the crackles but none of the the fizz!

Talking ancient history, the very first classical LP I ever bought was Mozart Symphonies 40 & 41. The very first classical LP I ever bought & enjoyed was Beethoven Piano Concerto no 5. That version, by Robert Casadesus with George Szell & the Cleveland Orchestra is only available on download as part of a huge set - I have it on CD and wasn't about to get all of that for my iPhone. But I read a review in the Telegraph of a new recording by Yevgeny Sudbin with the Minnesota Orchestra, and so acquired that instead. Coupled with the 4th Concerto, it is lively, refreshing, occasionally surprising & though it will never replace Casadesus in my heart, it's a very good version.

Finally (for now - you always think of something else with iTunes - it's a blessing & a curse) I've just bought tickets to go see my favourite opera at Welsh National come the end of May. Turandot. There are many, many recordings of this available, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's forty years old and will probably remain the standard for some time. Shamefully, I bought the highlights not the whole opera, but the highlights disc has the concert ending to Nessun Dorma, which feels great in the car! Joan Sutherland, singing Turandot, a role she never sang on stage, is glorious - powerful, beautiful, glorious. Montserrat Caballe as Liu occasionally sounds a little too like Sutherland, but this is power casting. And then there is the youthful Pavarotti at his very, very best, turning in a sensational Calaf. Zubin Mehta conducts - I saw him once run the pit at Florence, and despite an all-star cast there, it was the orchestra I remember. Occasionally that happens here. The London Philharmonic turn in an astoundingly ravishing performance, again brilliantly recorded by Decca (not just good at big bands).

Hmm. You know, I think I worshipped a lot more to the Puccini than the Tomlin? Sorry. My heart leapt and soared and my face beamed with joy as I drove along. Not that I thought much of Giacomo's stuff would do for the congregation... And maybe I need to put a lock on my iTunes account before I think of something else - oh, hang on...

Monday, March 14, 2011

giving up

What are you giving up for Lent? I am afraid I rather detest this question. My favourite answer came on my facebook page when one person simply said "I'm just giving up..."

The idea that life with the God of creation is somehow better understood by eating less chocolate seems to me absurd. There, I've said it. Strike me down. File me with "Rob Bell".

So - do I ignore Lent? Do I think the seasons of the Church's year are no more than a bit of alternative colourwash in the clerical calendar?

Far from it.

I simply want to remember that righteousness is never primarily about the stuff we do, but always at heart about the relationships we embrace. Are we right with God? Right with those around us? This is the heart of righteousness - right relationships. And seldom does the quantity of chocolate consumed materially affect these.

Lent is a "back to basics" season - not for "giving things up" but for "stripping things away" in order to reveal what is really true.

Is my life with God for real or for show? Does my life begin to match my words? Am I still seeking him with all my heart? And yes, it may take some doing to reveal these truths - some peeling back the layers. OK.

Jesus goes into the desert and fasts for 40 days & nights. He is hungry. No wonder - I'm hungry when I've fasted for 40 minutes. And the first question that gets thrown at him is all about righteousness. Relationship. The core of life.

"If you are the Son of God, come on, use a bit of that power for yourself and let's see this stone become bread. Where's the harm? You're worth it."

A different wilderness, a different time. Stones, loneliness, hunger, fear. Voices crying out in doubt and complaint. And God speaks to feed his children. Day by day over decades, though the children waver and wander in their life with God, God never falters and every morning provides manna to sustain the people he loves.

But this man isn't just one of the children. He is the Son. The Royal Son, the King, the one whom the Psalmist says will always use his power to deliver the needy, to protect the weak, to rescue them from violence and oppression. And he knows who he is, and the Father he can trust, and the people he will serve and love.

"Nice try," he replies. "But I've been here, what - nearly two months? Do you know the story of the people who were watched over for nearly two generations? They were tested, humbled - and fed day by day to learn that we don't live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

Stripped of family, friends, crowds, support, everything comfortable and familiar, Jesus was who he was. He has no need of that "if". He knows God loves him. He is in the right place with him. And he knows his role is to use his power for others, not himself. He is in the right place with us. There, in the private place, where no-one can see.

Of course, there is one other occasion he gets that "If you are the Son of God" thing thrown at him. Nailed to two planks of wood, with criminals likewise skewered either side of him, a crowd beying for his blood and priests and soldiers taunting him, again a voice calls out - "If you are the Son of God..." and again, it mocks him, pushing him to use that power for his own benefit, "Come down from the cross!"

Lent is a time to strip life back. To find out who we really are. If possible to do it in the private place. Because one day we may be sorely tried in the most public of arenas, and if we haven't learned to be someone who loves God and who loves the people he loves when there is no cost, we won't stand much of a chance passing the test on that far harder day.

So. I'm eating my chocolate. And keeping up with friends on facebook. Tomorrow night I'll be at the pub quiz. And I am also praying that this year I might be a better person than last year, and next year a better person than this - that at my core I might be someone right with God and right with those around me, loving, serving, and learning to be a bit more like Jesus.

The surface is what it is, and I'll enjoy it as much as the next bloke; but strip it away, and who am I at my core? That's the question of Lent.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

a secular state?

A couple of days ago, the press was filled with stories such as "Foster parent ban: 'No Place' in law for Christianity, court rules" - Daily Telegraph. A couple from Derby had gone to the High Court to seek clarification with Derby Council as to whether they could still be foster parents in the light of different equalities legislation, which preserve rights of religious freedom and sexual orientation.

The organisation which sponsored the couple through the court, the Christian Legal Centre, has a very efficient press arm, and it seems that most of the subsequent reporting came from their press releases. Because that story in the Telegraph bears a great resemblance to the CLC website report, but not to the facts.

Gavin Drake reports an alternative line in his blog; the Church Mouse has some useful information on the actual ruling. It seems, in fact, no ruling was actually made. The judges would not make a decision on a hypothetical issue, would not make a blanket judgement on a very technical and issue-specific question, and were critical of both parties for not even being able to agree on the questions they were raising before them.

That being said, they did say some interesting things about the place of faith in the law. The line that there is no place for faith in the law is inaccurate; they were quite clear - all people are equal and must be seen as such. But they were also clear that no-one has a privileged position because of their faith, no-one can claim superior standing because of their faith. This would be theocracy, and not the kind of state in which we live. Faith (for sure) is protected; but the content of faith (any faith) may indeed be questioned by the law. That is uncomfortable for people in a world where values are set in all kinds of ways - and yet I find this still encouraging, and essentially Christian.

It's a question of priorities. Which is more important here: that all people are made in the image of God, that in Christ there is no male or female, slave or free, that we worship a Lord who eats with sinners and tax collectors to demonstrate that they too are children of Abraham - or that we should have a right to a moral code that effectively makes some people second class? The judges were keen to point out that no-one was being called a bigot, but the CLC are almost pathological in their attempts to make all Christians appear to be such - and as such, are achieving a far less Christian standard for the church in the public eye than the High Court granted a couple of days ago. The content of a faith that goes on making some people second class needs to be challenged. And don't you dare fire off at me with, "But the Bible says..." because if you do, you are saying that the Bible contradicts itself, and that the principles with which I began this paragraph (clear, obvious Biblical principles) are at best secondary to a couple of random verses about a moral issue that has hardly any weight at all in the pages of the Bible. Perhaps rather we need to work a bit harder at understanding those couple of verses, and see better how they fit into the general swathe of God's Word.

And perhaps also the world can do the Church the occasional favour. We are an obtuse and bizarre lot. As I pointed out last time! Loving people, doing good and finding friends everywhere (rather than making random or even rather specific enemies) seems to me quite a good aim for the Church. If the world refuses to allow us the safety of hiding behind the barricades of the past, it might make us better at living out the love of Jesus today. Engaging with his world. His mission. His way. I find in the words of the non-ruling that I have read nothing for any of us to fear, no advance of secularism, but more a reminder that fiddling whilst Rome burns is never attractive.

A secular state? Bring it on; I'm afraid it feels more Christian than the alternative promulgated by those who have taken our Lord's name upon themselves in their press release about this court case.