What your soul sings

3 05 2009

So there’s me, saying I don’t think singing is where it’s at. And two significant things today revolved around singing.

First. This morning.

It was rather discouraging in a way that there were just eleven of us at the Sunday morning service at St Luke’s today. I console myself with the fact that it’s a bank holiday weekend and that there probably aren’t so many around at the mo. And we didn’t have a musician. I knew our most regular musician was away. But I planned that we would listen to one song and sing another.

The song I thought we would listen to has been bugging me all week. I first heard it last summer at New Wine — a happy clappy church conference. It isn’t a naturally comfortable place for me, but last year as curate of a church that was going it allowed me time away with the family without using up holiday entitlement. So it was a no brainer really. The kids loved it and so despite myself, we’ve booked to go this year too.

Anyway, the song is called ‘Mighty to save’ and it’s from Hillsong (Aussie mega church). Now there are things about it that trouble me. First it’s that whole conservative, Pentecostal mega-church thing with its hardline morality and prosperity teaching. But then singing a song doesn’t mean you’re buying into the theology of the church what wrote it. But then the song is very definitely in that Christian soft rock style about which I have been so disparaging. Then it’s troubling on so many levels: ‘saviour, he can move the mountains/my God is mighty to save/he is mighty to save’. First off there’s all that ‘mighty’ language — there in the Bible of course (in relation to the crossing of the Red Sea especially) but the song is about Christ and if he is mighty then it’s such a different sort of might as to render the word irrelevant. I see the cross as representing God’s vulnerability in the world; God’s frailty; dare I say: weakness. Then there’s the (male) gendered pronouns for God (not uncommon I know but a personal bugbear of mine). It just means that as much as I studiously avoid gendered pronouns in my leading of liturgy, I am undermined by songwriters. And finally there’s the possessive in relation to God: ‘my God’. It just has too much of a hint of the ‘God on our side’ mentality for me, which, by extension, suggests not on the side of others. God is either for all the peoples of the world or none of them. The Bible is chock full of stories that show the danger of imagining that we possess God rather than being possessed by her.

And yet… Despite all that, this song has been buzzing round my head all week. It’s catchy so it’s just the sort of song one finds one’s self singing/humming, but why this week? It does have a hook that makes it appropriate in Easter time: ‘he rose and conquered the grave/Jesus conquered the grave’. So I put the words up on the screen and as well as listening, we all sang along. (‘All’ here covering a very small number of people!) I have learned/am still learning to trust those moments where something comes at you or you have an inner sense that suggests doing a particular thing. I think this song might be just what a couple of people needed this morning. That would always be important but even more so when they represent, as they did this morning, a significant perecentage of the congregation! So, much as I might harp on about singing actually being offputting for people in our locality, this tiny community is going to feel bereft if there are no opportunities to sing these sorts of songs.

Second. This evening.

I was a couple of minutes late arriving at the Fleet. For no good reason really. I just didn’t get myself moving quickly enough. Actually the same thing happened last week except that I was an hour ahead of myself. I set off late for 7:45 pm and arrived at about 7:50. But I was actually 55 minutes early instead of 5 minutes late: I invited people to come at 8:45. There’s no way I’d be late for a service in the church building so why did I act as if it is okay when meeting people in the pub? This coming week I’m determined to be there early.

All that meant I was worried this week. If people had arrived and not found me, maybe they would just have cleared off again. Especially as I hadn’t realized that it was karaoke night. Anyone arriving for a discussion evening would have thought they were in the wrong place. It was heaving and loud.

So not finding anyone I knew, I got myself a drink and stood in the archway next to a fruit machine to see if anyone was going to arrive. At one point I was gathered up in an embrace by one chap I’d met through my previous ministry at St Jude’s. He was at that moment, as most of the other times I’ve met him, quite well refreshed. What’s amazing is that he always expresses great appreciation for what I do, when all I can remember is just having spoken to him. Maybe I’m being a bit disingenuous there because I do think simple conversation is hugely important and that for some just having someone take the trouble to talk to them (and listen) can be very significant.

Anyway after that I decided to plant myself at a table and watch the door to see if any of my crew were arriving. I was joined after a little while by a group of people I didn’t know who asked if they could sit at the table. What was interesting was that there were empty tables so I wasn’t occupying a space they needed. It was pretty central for the entertainment. After a little while of getting used to sitting around the same table, we gently eased into conversation (shouted over the music). They were a group of three girls and two chaps who know each other from having studied at the Uni a few years’ previously. They didn’t all live in Portsmouth. They were having a sort of reunion time in their old student boozer.


We actually got on really well. Our conversation was a mix of friendly banter and joking about the karaoke performances along with some deeper stuff about faith or my work, usually prefaced with: ‘Can I just ask you a question…’

I was persuaded, ostensibly by being bought a Guinness, to have a crack at the karaoke. While someone was off getting a round in, one person I had been expecting did turn up. She quickly joined in the shouted conversation and banter too and was warmly welcomed by this very friendly bunch.

It was soon my turn to sing with the band. (It was live karaoke.) I sang ‘Spirit in the sky’ — in a knowing and ironic way, of course! It was highly amusing (if to no-one else then at least to me) to be singing ‘gotta have a friend in Jesus/so you know that when you die/he’s gonna recommend you to the Spirit in the sky’ to this pub full of quite drunk people who were in some corners engaged in some pretty advanced affectionate activity! Funnily enough it seemed to go down a storm.

Another drink was enough to persuade me to have another go. There followed an awful rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a place in earth’. That was me. And then a third priestly performance. This time I discovered that one of the girls on our table — table ten — had set me up to sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man, I feel like a woman’. I’m game for a laugh so what else could I do but to go for it and ham it up completely. Again, the performance, complete with backing vocals from one of the girls from table ten, was greatly appreciated. I do wonder though, after camping it up a but, how I managed to get out of the place alive!

I really don’t think this crew were just having a laugh at my expense. A couple of them took a turn at the mike thenselves and I think we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

So, once again, after a wobbly start, I found myself meeting some new people, sharing the experience with a Christian friend and maybe even getting a bit of profile in the pub as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. All in all a good night’s work and huge fun to boot. And singing, even about Jesus (!) was very definitely a part if it.

I can’t wait for next week. I have no idea what will happen. But that’s what makes it so exciting.

If music be the food of love

29 04 2009

It has been my contention recently that the last thing that most people outside our churchy world want to do is ‘sing to Jesus’. It was actually put to me recently that way by someone who has been on the fringes of my former church but doesn’t feel able to be a more regular attender because singing is just not what he wants to do. I don’t think he’s alone. I don’t think he’s alone amongst people who actually do go to church. And I certainly don’t think he’s alone as far as the vast majority of the population who don’t often darken the door of a church are concerned.

Now it’s a complicated picture. There are clearly plenty of people who like nothing better than to belt out a good song on a Sunday. Witness the trouble a local colleague is having because his morning service has recently struggled musically. And the big conferences like ‘New Wine’ are packed with people who want to sing contemporary worship songs. Children do like to sing it seems. The local SureStart (entirely secular) runs a ‘come and sing’ event for preschoolers and their parents at some of its centres. And there’s certainly a constituency that do like to sing the old carols at Christmas. (Woe betide the vicar who substitutes a new song for Silent Night!) And whenever I got to Fratton Park, there’s no shortage of singing. Not all of it edifying, but all very enthusiastic!

But, I still think, when it comes down to it, that the people in the area St Luke’s church serves, on the whole, would not want to come and sing anything that we currently sing as a church. I’ve got no scientific basis for saying that. Call it a hunch.

I do have a bit of a thing at the moment about the style of music. If the church is going to ape contemporary music, why does it go for American soft rock? Why not house? Gangsta rap? Jazz? Nu-metal? Of course that style (soft rock not Gangsta rap) is more prevalent in more evangelical churches. There are plenty of churches singing hymns every Sunday. But I don’t think people are flocking to that either…

But that doesn’t mean music isn’t important to people. Most people love music. They love to listen to music. There are songs that make us cry. Music touches us deeply. It sings to our spirit.

So last night, I kicked off a bit of an experiment. In a tiny way.

It was the night that our little home group meets. I shared three tracks with that group that sing to my spirit. Three tracks that actually give me a ‘spiritual moment’ when I listen to them. Whether I listen to them on iTunes at home or on my iPod while I’m (occasionally) running, these are songs that make me feel in touch with God. In case you’re interested, they are:

  1. Faithless: God is a DJ
  2. Lamb: Wonder
  3. Massive Attack: What your soul sings

Now there are many more tracks that do something similar for me on different occasions, but those are the three that consistently blow me away. I experience a visceral sense of encounter with the divine. I experience a moment of immanent transcendence – to use theological language. And they connect with me because they say something about what I think is at the heart of being a Christian. The first speaks about real community: ‘this is my church/this is where I heal my hurts’. The second speaks about open pondering at the wonder and majesty of the world: ‘don’t know if God exists/but there’s some magic out there’. The third speaks about becoming our true selves, releasing who we really are: ‘Don’t be ashamed no/To open your heart and pray/Say what your soul sings to you’.

So I shared these tracks with the other members of the home group last night. I don’t know how they all found the experience, it’s a bit raw to open your heart up like that and then hear that someone else thinks your most significant music is awful. But when I asked who might be willing to share their three tracks, two people volunteered straight away. One was a good friend of ours we’ve known for years and who I know loves music. She is, to be fair, a lover too of contemporary worship music. She plays her guitar regularly at St Luke’s. The other was one of only two people we see regularly who actually are really residents of the area. And she is the one who is the least immersed in the culture of the church, the one I think who would be least likely to call herself a Christian. I don’t know about that last one. It’s not a value judgement on my part. Except maybe it is on this occasion, but in her favour. I wonder whether she is the one person who most represents the constituency I think we’re hoping to reach out to. And she was the one who’s imagination was most immediately gripped by sharing her music as an act that might be something spiritually significant. 

Food for thought as well as love, I think.