Friday, 20 November 2009



So just to say at the outset, this is going to be more a review of some of the new albums that I've got my mitts on recently-
Tune in again soon for an update on everything else happening in life....on which there is much to update, but I have a nice little window of an hour or so to talk about music, and it's not big enough to talk about everything else.
Suffice it to say everything is brilliant- happy, safe, challenged, encouraged, pressed and pressing on, blessed beyond what I deserve, ask or imagine.

So, many people will wonder why I bother to actually review music, as I have done in the past.
Well, not only do I think that music is incredibly powerful, but I also think that putting into words what I think about an album helps me make sense of it.
So, if you want to come along for the ride, feel free.
I think it makes sense to go chronologically, because ranking in order of favourites is probably pretty fruitless.

I love this time of year, because there is usually a few solid offerings coming out after a long summer of not very much. One of the things that there was a lot of excitement from pretty early on in our uni lives was the new Muse album.
The Resistance had a lot of pressure on it from Russ, Cal and myself.
On the first few hearings, I was a bit worried that they hadn't managed to keep any handle on the reigns of rationale and quality control.

However, here we have a perfect example of 'a grower'. I still don't think it's their strongest offering- not by a long stretch.
Perhaps I'm stuck in the area between Origin and Absolution, where it was all about the rock, and that's the sound I'm still yearning for.
However, whatever made me react badly to it at first has subsided enough for me to appreciate it properly now.
Whilst people will wax lyrical about the Exogenesis symphony, calling it the jewel in the crown of the album, I can't help but think that 'symphony' is a strong word to use- a moving, if slightly zany, composition for sure- but when you reach this 12 minute orchestrafest at the end of the album, the tone has been set to such epic, bombastic, ridiculous-but-it-totally-works levels, that I want it to be even bigger, even longer, even more genre busting.
And this is something that Muse have done with this album. People are sandwiching words together all the time to try and pin what 'their sound' is...emopera, epic space psychedelic mega rock.

Pick your favourite, but none of them cover all the bases.

Undisclosed Desires is a worrying foray into electronic, drum looped R & B, United States of Eurasia is a homage to Freddie Mercury and I Belong To You sounds so French that you're not really surprised when Matt Bellamy actually breaks into French half way through.

The highlights of the album, for me, are the most 'vintage Muse', which is unsurprising- so 'Resistance', 'Unnatural Selection' and 'MK Ultra' are the tracks with the most plays so far.

As for the lyrics, some are straightforward love songs, others are love songs with tinges of conspiracy and political unrest, some explore conspiracies and theories so unconventional that only a select portion of the Internet dwelling community could pass comment on them. (See the lyrics of the Exogenesis symphony)

So, it's typically opaque in some areas, tender in thing is always sure, it's fun and even when dealing with the aliens stuff, they don't seem to take themselves that seriously, which is a redeeming feature. I don't think I'd listen to the whole thing straight through very often, but I am realising that I am no better placed to try and pin down their 'sound' more than anyone else.
It's good, bordering on great. Fun to the point of silly.
But I'd point you without qualm to their first three albums first before this one.

Second is Relient K's new album- 'Forget and Not Slow Down.'
The first impression of the album is how much these guys have matured.
Sure, their first few albums were funny, and Matt Thiessen's lyrics knotted the tongues of Christian teenagers everywhere, but the music was raw pop punk.
This album has grown in the direction that their MASSIVE EP (13 tracks!) was pointing them in this time last year.

The sound is more layered rock, the lyrics are not just phonetically and spiritually brilliant, but Thiessen has worked a recurring metaphor of Deserts, Savannahs, Lions and Oases throughout the album that is clever, subtle, and brimming with humility and hope.

It is almost impossible pick highlights, because it is such a smoothly running album- from the fast paced title track which opener, to the folky-pop 'Candlelight', all the way back to straight up rock in 'Savannah', this too represents a wide spectrum of styles.

However, one thing that can be said is that the album works even better than the sum of its parts. It's not a concept album as such, but it feels like a story, a journey, an adventure, held together by the recurring metaphor, and a series of connecting interludes, which act as the glue between different themes and styles.

It is silly in places...thankfully maturity doesn't mean boring, and Thiessen's rhyming is impeccable and cheeky as ever.

The overriding feeling is that these guys have figured out what they want to play, and they have the talent and creativity to have crafted a very solid album that encapsulates all of these things.

If I say top marks now, that leaves no scope to raise the bar higher later on, but this is feel-good pop-rock that makes rainy days seem summery, and is a great example of how Christians in bands are successfully straddling both the 'Christian' and secular markets, keeping truth, integrity and focus, but also being enjoyable, relevant and non-preachy.
Yes..get it!

'Newday 2009- No shout too loud' is the live album from this year's event that I covered in detail last time.

Hearing it back made me realise the quality of the songs that were new this year; how Phatfish's funky pop does actually work in a worship song, and how no matter how many songs are written, you can't escape the quality of hymns.
How Great Thou Art is a welcome inclusion.
It's one of the best Newday albums ever, a bit short, but an accurate picture of the quality and intimacy of the worship we can experience not just at big events, but everywhere, everyday.
Good stuff.

But here is the moment I've been waiting for.

After nearly three years of waiting HELLO HURRICANE landed on the doormat on a fateful day in early November.
I have never been more excited, nor been so apprehensive, about an album before.

Switchfoot have grown in popularity so much in the past few years, and after going independent and Jon doing some side projects, I wondered if any quality or direction would be lost in the void.

Whilst the bonus DVD makes it clear that the album has been a real labour of love, I am so relieved to say that I have never had such misplaced anxiousness.
My admiration of this band is well documented, so trying to put into words how brilliant it is will be difficult.
I put it to you that this is one of the most complete, solid, truth-packed, honest and hopeful albums you will hear.
Yes, Joe is predictably saying that the new Switchfoot album is one of the best. ever.
Big whoop.

But let me say why (I definitely wouldn't say that of their last one).
One of the best criteria to use is to see how the track makes you feel.
I am moved and enthused by each one.

Most albums have that one or two that you always skip- not filler per se, but just not as good as the rest.
There is no room on this album for that.
In Jon's own words; 'the pre-requisite for a song making this album was 'if the song doesn't make you cry, why are you singing it?' and Chad Butler added 'The decision process became about choosing the songs we felt like we could play for the rest of our lives'.

There is no fat, no gimmicks.
Switchfoot have toned every muscle, and this is a rippling display of musical perfection.

Needle and Haystack Life explodes the album into life with hectic drumming . Mess of Me and The Sound are almost Zeppelin-like, Bullet Soul is so passionate that there are cries of determination in the final chorus.
Hello Hurricane is a great fulcrum that the whole album rests on, driven by something sounding suspiciously like a ukulele and the bass drum. Go figure.
These are balanced by the slower and reflective, which range from the fragile and vulnerable 'Yet' (reminiscent of their earlier albums) to the initially dark and eventually crescendoing-in-hope 'Sing it out'. 'Your Love is a song' is beautiful. 'Enough to let me go' is achingly honest. 'Always' is a great worship song. 'Free' has some great snare work and guitars crunch over Jon's heartfelt plea for help. 'Red Eyes' is a slow poppy number, which closes the whole thing perfectly with a culmination of what can only be deemed as 'Christmassy noise'.

It's a delightful offering that I am pleased to be so gushing about.
It is brilliant on every level.

Get it. And then get it for your friends.

I think after the surpassing of all expectations thus far, John Mayer had a high bar to reach.
I've spoken a bit about him before- 'Continuum' and 'Where the light is' are remarkable albums, and Mayer was aware of that.
He's tried to 'step to the side of the success of those albums rather than pursue a similar direction.'

The result of this is quite baffling, and I'm still trying to get my head around it.

Because it's not bad.

Undoubtedly, he's a brilliant musician, as are Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino, who were in the JM Trio with him and have helped on this album too.

But in moving away from the fabulous rock-blues that dominated my playlists for months, an album without much direction or punch has come out.

It's pretty much all airy, mellow, medium paced love songs.

This, again, is not a bad thing in itself, but my expectations were so different that I'm still thinking that it could have been so much more.
There are a few redeeming features- on the closing track, 'Friends, Lovers or Nothing', there are glimpses of the guitar we all know he's capable of, but the majority of the album I only find myself able to listen to after midnight when I am winding down, because the lyrical content is uninspiring too.

Whilst he's written deeply in the past, this seems to be almost all about 'love' (inverted commas intentional).
Alas, it seems he still hasn't got a very clear idea of what love is, which I think is what gives the album its lack of direction.

For me, this manifests itself most ironically when Taylor Swift shows up to duet.
I wouldn't be too upset if Kanye West interrupted to be honest...

One song completely out of place which cements my disappointment is his cover of 'Crossroads'. It's so laid back it's almost horizontal.
The guitar solo is nice to listen to, but if you listen to this and then the Cream version afterwards, you'll notice what it COULD have been.
That pretty much sums up the album.
It's nice, I suppose, but could be so much better.

With the other four albums I reviewed being out at around the same time, this one is unlikely to have much play-time because it's mostly OK, boring at worst.
A big disappointment that I hope he will recover from.

With all of the great music that's emerged lately, I thought it would be an insurmountable task to get me to listen to something else around this time, but I didn't factor in hearing the title track from OneRepublic's upcoming album 'Waking Up'.

I don't want to spoil it for people, and when the full thing comes out, I'll probably review it then. But let's just say that an instrumental part spoke more to me than all the lyrics on Mayer and Muses' albums put together.
If it carries on in that vein, it's bound to be something quite remarkable.
That will do for now.
Until next time, be cool compadres.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Newday review

A brief update of what's been going on first:

This summer has been relatively unfruitful so far, lots of rejections for jobs, but it's not been so bad...the day after getting back from Newday I popped back for a night, and then had an impromptu few days in Wales with the family, which was sweeeeet.

The bulk of this has been written from the first class carriage from the train from Birmingham to Bournemouth (amazingly cheap tickets advance from the internet), and I'm now finishing it off from the front room of a vicarage in Poole. It's been a funny old day.

But there's plenty to say.....

At base, this is going to be a retelling of the nuts and bolts of Newday.
For a more general overview of each day of the week, visit the official blog here
I'll be concentrating on a personal, in-the-field kind of view.

So, let's get down to it; Newday is a conference run by NewFrontiers, the network of churches that Oasis and my home church are involved with.

It’s for youth groups primarily, but more and more, they're running seminar streams for slightly older and younger people too, with 7000 people crowding out a showground or racecourse for a week every year. As we approached Norfolk showground for this year’s knees-up, I was somewhat nervous because, despite being a verteran of the event, I travelled with the youth group from Oasis. A new group who didn’t know me well at a new venue; it was always going to be interesting. More than I might have guessed.

After the inevitable funny looks whilst Bryn and I put up our tent (a borrowed one that was about two people smaller than I expected it to be), I began to settle in and get to know the group. Props to Pete, Cheryl, Matt and Cath (the other leaders), and Gus and Jane who looked after me as much as the rest of the group in the first day or so. Anyway, camp was set up and Swingball began, but it was when we reached the big top and packed in to be led by Simon Brading in worship that I finally felt on familiar, comfortable ground.

True, there were moments throughout the week when the younger echelons got a tad too boisterous and it became more like a concert than real, zealous, celebratory worship, but I have to commend the worship leaders all week for their wisdom and sensitivity to the spirit- Phatfish and Matt Redman led other sessions and along with Simon were quite brilliant. But we weren’t just there for a party...Stef Liston kicked off the characteristically solid and challenging teaching with first of two talks on forgiveness, the firstly from God, and then on the second night, the equally important subject of forgiving others, which ended in much emotion, but it was necessary emotion, not hyped up or stirred up- it was constructive emotion. Something I need to work on distinguishing in myself.

While we’re talking about the teaching, it would be good to talk about the other stuff that went on during the week. In the mornings, meetings are split according to age (12-14 and 15-19). For the younger group, Andrew Wilson (just about my favourite writer at the moment) used the mornings to talk on the subject of ‘Who is Jesus’, which I understand to be basic apologetics. I can’t think of a better person to be bringing such a massive subject to life for that age group. For the older lot, whom I was looking after, Joel Virgo preached some of the most relevant and frankly interesting stuff I’ve ever heard from him, on the subject of Peter; his life and the effect Jesus had on him. There was a range of seminars after the morning meetings over a huge range of subjects, some of which I’ll touch on later. As I said, Stef crammed a huge, huge amount into the first two evenings, and then Mike Pilavachi took to the stage for the next two nights. From past experience, I was prepared to laugh a lot, be challenged a lot, and then for things to go a bit chaotic. I was not disappointed.

The first evening, he spoke on the relevance of the Old Testament and how throughout it, there are mirrors and whispers and signposts all pointing towards Jesus, the hero of the whole story. I haven’t read it, but I imagine it was a very condensed version of his book ‘Storylines’. It’s something that I have only just come to realise a bit more, and it’s helped no end in studying the OT, because it’s a bit like when you watch a film again, and because you know the plot twist at the end, you understand nearly every scene far better, for example The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. So, good stuff from Mikey.

He finished his talk, sat down on the edge of the stage, and then said “We’re going to just wait and see what God does next”. Bold words to say in front of thousands of excitable teenagers. As part of the ministry team, I can say first hand that God came and genuinely met in a powerful way with a lot of people, which was hugely exciting, especially to see some of the younger guys from our group (who, at this point, I was becoming a far better friend to, and fascinatingly, a real figure of authority- I was asked multiple times every ‘Can I go to the toilet’ – bless!) being filled with the spirit and being able to say things like ‘God was so close that I felt like I could almost see Him’ and ‘This is the first time that I’ve ever felt sure that God really loves me’ and ‘I really just want to tell everyone about how good God is’. For a leader, there aren’t really many better words to hear. The challenge comes in encouraging them to turn words into action, which is something I am itching to crack onto come September. Having said all of that, there were a few in the group who were quite understandably spooked by everything that was going on, so we had a bible study over breakfast from Acts and Joel to straighten some things out. It was at this point that I began to really feel like a leader; to serve and to bring understanding. It was a special moment.

Anyway, the day passed and Mike came to speak again. He had obviously anticipated some confusion, and spoke on the spirit, His role in the trinity, what He does, and what He doesn’t do. It was truth wisely and delicately delivered, and the evening came to a head with a little more cohesion with less misinterpreted acting and more real encounters. The second of the major standout points of the week occurred that evening. One of the chaps in our group had requested prayer because he wanted to speak in tongues, and after praying for others, I got the chance to pray with him (sadly I hadn’t got my red ministry team cap at this point!). Now, those that know me will know that one of the things I am passionate about is delivering a rational and well reasoned argument for the existence of God, but far more than any theology, philosophy or scientific discovery could, the biggest point I have is that our God actually does stuff! I prayed for this guy and a fabulous new language of praise came pouring out of him, and the joy and gratitude of the moment is almost too great to put into words without seeming insipid or massively hyperbolic. I was beginning to learn that though the way I approached the week was different, and my focus in the meetings was on multiple targets, God was still in charge, and almost every time does things different from what I expect. Being a leader and having responsibility for 20 youngsters certainly alters the way you approach the meeting, but it wasn’t hindering in the way I expected. New blessings and ways to worship present themselves, and the amount of satisfaction gained from seeing our group grow and come out of their shells during the week was something I had not anticipated. To have people come and ask for help with a verse in the Bible or for prayer for something is a massive exercise in humility because you realise that you really, really need to rely on Him!

This sentiment became more apparent the evening after, when I finally had the chance to don my red cap. Now, one of the best evenings at Newday is the night that Adrian Holloway (read his books!) prays for the sick and then delivers an interactive, engaging gospel message. Like small group meetings in front rooms, it’s moments in time like this that the New Testament comes alive, the church comes into her own as God comes and does more stuff than we can do on our own. In other words, the mere words of a prayer cannot heal people, it’s God responding to the prayer, and He did. Over 300 people were healed, some of which were straight out of the New Testament- blind people literally were given sight, deaf people literally could hear again. People who had had curved spines danced on stage. Again, more reason to bow in awe than can be written by the best human minds. Then, using the parable of the prodigal son as a base, he preached the gospel.

Using two huge white staircases on wheels (which must have been a nightmare to square with health and safety), he illustrated the closeness God intended, and then the separation we created, and then, walking through the aisles to the back of the big top, he continued talking, stopping by the PA rig to pick up a piece of wood, which He carried on his back, returning to the stage to use the wood to complete a cross that acted as the bridge between the staircases. It was, perhaps, not as cinematic as his messages from the past (which have included a real coffin, and a real guillotine), but it more than adequately served as a timely reminder of our constant need of the gospel, of Jesus and His mercy. Upon finishing his message, he asked everyone to take seven steps backwards in the already packed tent. At this point, my red capped friends and I moved to form a perimeter around the space left in front of the stage. Adrian invited people forward on the count of three, and they burst through our line. And they kept coming. The overwhelming response came in a glorious life defining moment. 300 people gave their lives to Jesus for the first time. Over 700 recommitted their lives to Him.

I feel that all those involved and all those that hear these figures should be well equipped to say that that, contrary to popular opinion, the gospel is relevant, necessary, indeed, absolutely vital today as much as any other time in history. Bearing in mind that the majority of the new commitments were not from churched kids, they were people who, perhaps grudgingly, had been taken to Newday by a friend who they knew ‘did church stuff’, been freaked out and/or amused by the meetings, but when the gospel is preached, God moves and people respond to Him. I had the honour of helping a young lad in his first steps in His new relationship with Jesus, and as I sat praying in a pig shed in Norwich, I thought “Why on earth don’t we get to do this more often?”. The answer is obvious, of course, but living out the answer is difficult.

There is a lot of buzz from being together with a lot of people who believe the same thing as you, a safety to be exuberant in praise and prayer, but my worry is that once September comes, it’s raining, Maths homework isn’t done and the bus is leaving, the passion for the gospel and for God himself will have fizzled out, because we mistook the buzz of the event for Him. Consequently, it’s my fervent prayer that everyone has learned something that will stick with them, and that Jesus has impacted them with something that lasts. I despise acted, plastic religion as much as Richard Dawkins- and ironically God himself (see minor prophets)-do, but I crave honesty and real relationship with Jesus, because that is the only way that anything planted at events like Newday are going to bear fruit.

Something else I’m sure impassioned atheists would despise is the offering that was given on the final morning. Some would call this ‘organised religion stealing from the pockets of unsuspecting teenagers’. You would be surprised if I didn’t disagree with this, and happily I don’t have to disappoint. A basic understanding of the woman who gave pennies at the temple and Jesus’ reaction will teach that it’s not about amount, it’s about heart attitude. Cliches like ‘it’s better to give than receive’ have been born around this, such that the truth is met with a shrug. There wasn’t much shrugging going on that morning though; again the simple trust in God, and a faith unblemished by cynicism allowed teenagers to happily give to the work that NewFrontiers is doing all over the world, to fund aid projects in inner cities in Britain, start churches in villages in Africa and everything in between. I have become fonder of the movement more and more lately; in the past I’ve been a little frustrated with its seeming lack of desire for ecumenical relationship (for those less wordy, that means connecting with other kinds of churches), but Mike Pilavachi and Matt Redman’s presence has proven progress in this area, and I don’t deny the possibility of my own ignorance in the past...still the point remains that my heart is dedicated to the vision of spirit-led, Bible based, healthy, effective churches all over the earth, and I, along with the rest of those present in the big top, was happy to give financially to support the mission, raising over £70,000.

As we have already seen, the fuel for mission is not money, but Jesus, who is more unswervingly passionate about it than we ever could be. With this in mind, Stu Gibbs spoke about baptism, primarily addressing those who had become Christians the night before, which took us up to the final evening. Nobody preached a conventional sermon, but some familiar leaders from the teaching during the week, and David and Phillipa Stroud, led us in what was undoubtedly the biggest and most dynamic prayer meeting I have ever been involved in. From our own unsaved friends, to our groups, to our leaders, our churches, to the government, to the nations of the world; we prayed for hours about many important issues with confidence that He is our God, and we are His people. Possibly the biggest thing I have relearned this week is the importance of prayer in and for every sphere of life. I am going through a bit of a dry season and have been finding it difficult to focus on prayer, but a reinvigorated sense of purpose and closeness has helped drastically. It’s an example of the stuff that needs to be built into us and we need to be disciplined about if we’re going to be useful and effective for the gospel, and not just make a loud noise for a week in a field of smelly teenagers.

Perhaps of equal importance of all that has been said above is the Swingball tournament that went on on our campsite. Alas, I was knocked out in the first round by a fifteen year-old, but it was a closely fought thing all the way through, although I have a very sore hand now.

Something I have alluded to already is the simple trust that the younger ones especially have. It’s something that I have had to consider and learn from in the past few days, as I have mused over a particular seminar that I went to. It was called ‘Jesus and Death’ (a jollier title you shall seldom hear!), and was centred around eschatology (end times), and therefore heaven, hell, the book of revelation. A very wise man once said to me that it was ironic that it was called Revalation because it is nigh on opaque, and, unnervingly, I left agreeing with this more than I had done previously. The guy who spoke, Phil Moore, is an excellent theologian and evangelist, and in the Q&A session afterwards, he was assisted by Andrew Wilson, who I have already showered accolades over. However, whilst the doctrine was sound and presented in a relatable way, the mere nature of Revelation (in that it can be interpreted in various ways) meant that left the lads I was in charge of and me myself asking more questions than were answered. On the one hand, I think it’s vitally important to have a correct concept of heaven (Colossians 3), otherwise the future hope of eternity with God is weak, and if that is weak, then one of the motivations for the gospel and one of the central themes of the gospel that we preach is weak. This won’t do because the gospel isn’t weak. However, I also concede that something of an unsatisfying silence is what scripture greets us with for some questions about heaven. Since one of the things that it does say is that we shouldn’t add anything onto what is written, it’s unhelpful and dangerous to humanly conceive answers to those questions. This leaves us in an uncomfortable place of limbo (which, is meant as a figure of speech with an ironic nod to the previous sentence, not a theological concept!). I was unsure how to proceed from here, and it weighed on me especially when I got home, and has contributed to my difficulty in prayer. I have concluded that what we need is a return to the story where Jesus talks about childlike faith. Not childish, as I’ve said before, but just simple, innocent trust. My inquisitive mind thirsts for answers that I may never know, but I have found a place where I’m at peace that God is good and has promised things for me before and after death. I don’t think it’s intellectual suicide to leave it at the few things that scripture has taught us on this subject. No, I think that it’s following a very important lesson that Jesus taught.

So, here’s a challenge to myself and all that read this to focus on what’s above, to be in the world but not of it, to be confident on the reality of our future hope, but also to not try and outsmart God by knowing as much as Him about it. The crux of the whole story is that we are far, far below Him in every way, what point would there be in a Saviour sacrificing Himself if we could know how everything in the universe works without His help.

Others may disagree with this, and I am happy to change my mind if fruitful discussion ensues, but we need to beware of obsession with Revelation, or complete disregard of it because it’s too scary or confusing. Let’s be real and honest, not plastic and manufacture things ourselves.

So, lots of things learned from that week, a highlight for summer for sure.

Enjoy the videos below, and I'll probably have plenty to say in a month or so when I'm back in Brum.

Love you all people.

In the top video, look for me and my sister at 3.30-3.31 and our very own Pete Lockhart's chin at 4.12-4.15

Friday, 26 June 2009

A tale of Allen, Alcohol, Anakin, Big Issue, Ben, Beth, Obi-Wan, Peter, Poverty and hopefully Jesus in everything.

Before getting into the meaty stuff....A quick skim over what's been happening first: Exams done and marked...I shall be back in Brum in September for second year having passed with a 2.1....not too shabby a performance, but good room to grow. It's been a superb time since exams, Em's been up to stay which was lovely, and had a time of refocussing and relaxation which is exactly what was needed.
Picnics, barbies, films, music, gigs (Maybe a This Beautiful Thief review next time, they're wonderful, check them on spotify), bowling, Cadbury world, cinema, mates, a few cool beers, CS Lewis' books (I am buzzing off 'Miracles' at the mo) and a study bible have made for a great few weeks.
Summer is yet to be sorted, with a few job prospects to be explored, but less about that.

Long, sunny days, multiple train journeys and the fast arrival of the end of an era are perfect conditions for this blog to begin to materialise.

With people I love very much already leaving uni, and preparing myself for a move out of halls in a few weeks, I've been getting thoughtful and indeed nostalgic...which will strike fear into some of you, I know.

The ramble that will hopefully come together smoothly begins in a (paraphrased) question that was on one of Ben's exams:

'Are the teachings of Jesus life changing?'. (With questions akin to that, I sometimes wonder why I didn't choose Theology as a degree course, but that's another story.)

Anyway, I heard that, and remarked at the simplicity of the answer.......
It took a comment from another friend some time later that evening for me to even get thinking about the question. As a believer, the answer is instinctively and unequivocally, 'yes', as life is joyfully U-turned in a direction contrary to the way the rest of the world is going, with a different mindset on life, death, the universe and everything, with an unmistakable change and continuous improvement within me. (Though I doubt a mere 'yes' would have set Ben on the way to a first!).

But, as my friend pointed out, the extent to which His teachings will change a life depend on the response people have when they hear them- what if people simply ignore His teachings? If they are met with rejection or ignorance, surely they are not life changing?

It was an interesting point, one that Ben and I relished, and one that I have spent time thinking about.
When I read the gospels, one of the loudest messages that come from Jesus' teachings is that He is the only way, there is no room for half measure, no two masters, either take up your cross and deny yourself or don't. He also spends quite considerable time helping us realise our own need, our own bankruptcy. Another facet of His teaching is His desire to reconcile and to bring joy and abundant life.

To ignore or reject this is not a neutral response, because there is no middle ground, so I would maintain that ignoring the teachings of Jesus is life-changing also. Very much so. But not a good change.
Ignoring one's only possible saviour is like the scene in Star Wars: Episode III when Anakin refuses to reach his hand to Obi-Wan, even though he is the one person on higher ground, the one person that can save him. Insert other metaphors about sitting on branches and saws here.
Anyway, my point from all this is that our response to Jesus' teachings will be life changing either way, leading to contentment and fullness or helplessness and unsatisfied hunger.

Treating that as in intro, with a promise that the above isn't just a standalone point, but is intended to come full circle, we'll head to the word next:

2 Peter 1:5-8 (
'...Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self control, and self control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ'

I love this passage because it's very helpful for looking at what we can focus on and allow to be grown in us, much like the fruits of the spirit. Peter is encouraging and pastoral, all the time focussed on the effectiveness and fruitfulness of faith, which is a great characteristic to learn from and aspire to.
However, the word I am struck by here is 'supplement'.
It seemed to me a curious word to use, because of connotations of vitamin supplements being used when there is a deficiency. I took a while to muse over it, and the more I read, the clearer it is that faith, and therefore our relationship with Jesus, is the absolute base; the staple diet; He is the daily bread, and in a vitamin-like way, these virtues and qualities are added on by Him where they are deficient, allowing us to be nourished and grow spiritually.

This, as an aside, links straight into something I remember Beth was saying about not doing things in our own strength- if we are willing to be taught, to follow, indeed to be fed, then through Him, for Him and in Him we can grow. I love it when different things that are impressed on us at a given time are exquisitely woven together .

It sounds like simple stuff, but I was convinced it was a good idea to write it down because of (amongst other things) a certain Mr. Allen's equally timed grasping and passion for this nourishment thing.
It seems that God is impressing heavily on us as a generation and each of us individually to be growing up in Him, to become more mature by becoming more like Him, to allow Him to make us into the kind of people that live with the qualities that the passage talks about. That's what I want to drive for.

Let's pause for a second, take this somewhere else, and ask you to imagine these events:
I had been home briefly and got the train back.
When I emerged from University station, there was a man selling the Big Issue, as there usually is.

Often, we shrug them away because we have no desire to read the magazine, and have far better things to than stop and chat, usually ending up in us failing to acknowledge the existence of these people at all.

I was in a hurry that day, and had no money on me at all, but I purposefully looked into his eyes and smiled, hoping to bring some small piece joy into his day, as I think many of us try to. (forgive the poeticism)

His face was haggard and drawn, with vacant eyes and a mouth that twitched as I presume he attempted to smile back. As I walked back to the flat, my heart broke for him and the state his life must be in. Monotonous. Helpless. Impoverished.

'Impoverished'....that word and his malnourished frame kept burning through my mind in one of those moments where poverty shows itself on the surface in a physical and obvious way.
As the day went on, the image remained powerful, but after dinner and a few games of pool in bar one, it had managed to get conveniently shelved in my mind.

Around midnight, I walked home for some sleep (which is a novel idea!), and I came across a couple of drunk chaps.
They approached me and attempted conversation, but only succeeded in being sick and laughing at nothing.
Now, call me overly poetic or plain patronising, but I'd never been so close and looked into the eyes of someone so drunk before, and (in a rather film-like way) glimpsed an almost identical blank expression, and sensed the same vacuousness in the eyes; living life without direction. Empty . It was
impoverishedness masquerading in a different fa├žade, far more subtle, less physical.
It's easy to explain that situation away with the alcohol, which is fine because it doesn't detract from my point, and neither am I saying that alcohol is in itself a bad thing, I'm not putting an absolute parallel between drunkenness and empty living, but the juxtaposition between these two experiences reminded me afresh that whilst poverty's most frequently shown face is raw, obvious and related to money and food (and aid missions, soup kitchens, and campaigning for economically disadvantaged people to have better opportunities is a good and necessary thing), so much more urgent is spiritual poverty, which is rife from the rich and famous to the last, the lost and the least, and the students that lie somewhere in the middle.

I was reminded at this point of Ben's exam question and the life-changing nature of Jesus's teaching. Never had His words looked so powerful or crucial.

An analogy I've always found helpful is one of us being waiters; we don't make the food, we don't eat it, and we can't force people to eat it, we just have to deliver it, confident in the chef's ability to satisfy the hunger of the consumer if they choose to eat it.
I need to be a waiter who recognises the need to serve, because a lot of people are starving. I am hoping for the chance to see that guy again, so that I might have chance to share the bread he really needs.

They need the staple diet- the bread of life.

And once there, encouraged and helped to get stronger, to grow muscle.

One thing that I notice is that some parts of the church major so much on outreach that the existing body ends up malnourished and poorly looked after.

Others become so cosy and caring that they're introvert and forget the hungry mouths and souls that need the hope that we have.

Since I'm quite literally part of the church, I know this from experience, because this imbalance often happens inside me.
So, a prayer for myself and for all of us that rather than have one or the other, we have a balance of the two, continuing to be bold, loving and sensible.

In the words of the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together.

The more I see His plan unfold; the huge, majestic tapestry that we're part of, the more faith I have that it is and will continue to come together.

Soooo, in a roundabout way, that's what's been racing through the mind lately.
It's good to get it all down. Hoping it helps or challenges or encourages someone else too.

I'm stuck into Acts lately...that may lead somewhere next time.

But for now, be cool
peoples. Have safe summers and happy holidays.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Bold, loving and sensible.

Evening all.
I'm going to try to squeeze something coherent out, though the alarm is optimistically set for 9am, for starting the revision early in order to picnic on the Vale with some of the best people around tomorrow lunchtime.
Things are grand and groovy, revision happening, sometimes sporadically, but have a lot of peace about the exams and extremely pleased to be back in Brum for, amongst other things:

-Catching up with some very lovely people whom I love....(Flowers remain optional).
-Getting stuck in with the youth group and settling back into Oasis
-Jamming in the house with some top movers, Messers Taylor, Miller and (in spirit) Dickens busting some moves that are seldom seen there, especially on Latin night.
-Seeing United progress to the final in style
-Seeing Chelsea fail to progress to the final in style, and seeing the reaction friends' reactions.(read:friend singular, ie Mr. Strain)
-Shocking my body into (and swiftly out of) a football tournament.
-Worms, Fifa and Pro Evo battles
-Far too much bacon.

All in all; life is grand, balanced, and thankfully being increasingly focussed on the one who matters in everything that goes on.

It's been a while...apologies...I finally found the catalyst to sort this post out and bind it together though.

It begins with some fresh-faced young chaps from Sheffield, that cheeky bunch, The Gentlemen. Their first outing, 'Smile back at me' was the was (and indeed remains) my favourite indie/breakbeat album full stop- a rare achievement to lure me away from straight up rock.
It has a diversity across genres that new bands rarely exhibit, and an honesty in the lyrics that weaves faith, relationships and personal reflection together under a funky, well produced album. Top marks for being unique, relateable, and evidently committed to getting truth into the tunes.

Their sophomore album came out a few days ago, ambitiously titled 'A Candid History of Faith, Hope, Love'.
I have been looking forward to this album for a good few years and have to say that my expectations have been met and exceeded. The above recipe has been largely unchanged, but there's nothing wrong with that, and the boldness of the title and cover art are warranted.
Upon the first few listens, a few tracks stand out from an excellent bunch;

'Unique', which is musically compelling- guitars are layered and a synth adds atmosphere, building to a rousing, rocky outro. It talks of our uniqueness as individuals, and then, for the most part, lifts its gaze higher and acknowledges God's ultimate uniqueness, wherein one can have trust in Him to the point of saying: "break me and make me everything you want me to be".
The second that stands out is 'Protest Music'.
These guys don't shy away from bold and emotive titles, and yet again, this doesn't disappoint.
Musically, it's definitely a song that I'm prone to head-bop and stomp to during the verse and allow it to progress into jumping and wild head swinging and air-drumming in the chorus.
But it's some of the lyrics of the song that grab hold of me:

"Wanna know a loving nation, wanna see a people free,
Wanna be a new creation, want to hear a symphony,
Now I don't want pornography all over MTV,
I don't need a magazine to tell me who to be.

This is my protest music, this is my protest song
I don't have all the answers, but I see some things are wrong

Wanna hang out with my parents,
I've still got so much to learn,
What a privilege to raise children,
I can't wait 'til it's my turn
So I don't need your teenage angst or rage against the air,
Because I care about my g-g-g-generation, but also value theirs.

What's the point in acting sexy when you say you're after love?
I couldn't care less if you're flexy, set your eyes on things above,
I don't want your underwear, no, please don't come backstage,
All I want's a wife that cares who loves me through old age."

It addresses some of the things that I struggle with and see wrong with the world, and a catchy, poppy song is a seemingly innocuous place where truth and peaceful rebellion against worldly ways can wriggle into consciousness.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers suggest that 'music is the great communicator'.
They certainly have a is incredibly effective to get a message across, and it is about the things in the song, amongst others, that we should be protesting about in our own ways.

However, in a more general sense, the rebellious U-turn against the world comes in the way that we live every day, once we spend time with God and realise why we're trying to do things differently.

I've been reading the letters to Timothy lately, and this verse (2Tim 1:7, TM) hits me:
'God doesn't want us to be shy with His gifts, but bold and loving and sensible'

This is a fantasitc marrying of three essentials in all ministry.

The blueprint seems to be uncompromising conviction and faith in His sufficiency, speaking out with confidence because of His (and therefore our) love for others, communicating in a relevant, sensitive way that isn't small minded, judgemental or alienating*, which, tragically and somewhat bizarrely, is the way that a Gospel of immeasurable grace, forgiveness and love sometimes comes across as. heartfelt prayer is that I become a man that shares God and his gifts in that bold, loving and sensible way.

But I have to ask myself;

How infrequently do I achieve all three of these at the same time?
In an attempt to be helpful and do things from a place of love, I'm frequently not sensible, I'm insensitive and tactless.
Or I do things out of duty without love.
Or in a chronic bout of cowardice, I use 'sensibleness' as an excuse as I fail to be bold and speak out about how amazing He is.

I really want to do the things He's told us to do and bless others with the gifts He gives, but sometimes I can't seem to connect all the dots at the same time by myself...
The big lesson I'm beginning to learn is that Jesus is as sufficient to help me do this as He is to forgive me and save me.
He brings the balance between these things (boldness, love and sensibleness) along with the gifts themselves in order for them to be effective and helpful.

Like pretty much everything that Jesus taught, (preaching the gospel, loving the Father and our neighbours, having faith, even being perfect) we don't just get an instruction to 'do' or 'be' them ourselves, we don't even just get the gifts, but we get the capacity from Him to be able to 'do' and 'be' them and use the gifts properly for Him.

He doesn't leave us stranded. He doesn't abandon us with just an instruction manual.

He comes along side and teaches us on the job, like an apprentice being shown how to use the tools of a master-craftsman by the main man himself.

It's tough to reach that place and stay there though- I've found that selfishness and pride make even ministry about us; it becomes our work, our responsibility, our little Gospel projects, and often our failure, frustration and guilt when our own driven endeavours come to nothing...."why isn't my friend saved yet?"..."why doesn't that work?"..."why is living as a Christian such a slog sometimes?"....

All these are questions that have come into my head, and stepping back to observe what I'm doing and why I'm doing them allow me to reach the following crossroad:

The paradigm shift we have to make is from 'we should do good things because that's just what Christians do, and evangelism is a tiresome and frustrating activity' to 'it is a mindbending privilege to be working within God's plan, He's the reason and source of all our efforts of evangelism, encouragement and edification. Out of gratefulness and love for Him, because of what He's done and who He is, I'll allow Him to teach me and help me, knowing that as I step out, His grace is unending, so as an 'apprentice' who will inevitably make mistakes, there is no guilt or condemnation. He is the author of the salvation plan, His timing is perfect, and I will trust in that.'

Let's not get so caught up in religion that we forget why we're doing it.

So, I urge myself to live boldly, lovingly and sensibly, trusting Him for all that I need, and for all sorts of gifts to be given to be used in the ways He wants.

*A word on the aforementioned lack of tact and overly judgemental attitudes.

It worries me that some Christians subconsciously (and even consciously) expect others that haven't been saved to adhere to a way of living we seldom attain (and when we do, only managing because of God's grace). If unbelievers feel like we are looking down on them from a moral high horse, rather than feeling loved and welcomed, then we are scarcely being Christ-like.

For example, if I criticise drunkenness in my non-Christian friends, (them knowing that I don't drink much) they quite understandably would feel affronted, and are far less likely to be open to anything I have to say, even if it is about love and grace and freedom.

It takes a lot of wisdom and trust to know how to approach each person and each situation so that the Gospel can be explained effectively.

But the encouragement is again that it's His Gospel, not ours, His work, not ours, grace is SO BIG, and He helps us to be bold, loving and sensible in our conversations, so let's be on the lookout to remain open, welcoming and loving rather than introvert, cliquey and legalistic.

I shall probably take a break for a few weeks now that exams are nearly on top of me.

Loving some truth in 1 and 2 Peter right now, we'll see where that leads another time.

Until then, let's keep living deeply and simply.

Take care amigos.