Between the music and (my) words.

As I have remarked many time in the course of this blog, writing about music can be impossible. How do you possibly convey the excitement that comes with hearing a piece of music in ‘mere’ words? It is almost impossible yet….one of things I have always done is to talk about the music that moves me and perhaps writing is a similar task. I hope that those who read these words might seek the music out for themselves. This is what I have done and other people’s estimation and taste has often led me to something which has become a great treasure. This afternoon I listened to a track by Santana called ‘Song of the Wind’ – in fact I listened to it about three times! This is a duet between Carlos Santana and another guitarist called Neal Schon and many people write of the way that it is impossible to tell who is playing what so seamless is the performance. A general consensus is that Neal kicks things off until about 2 minutes in and then  returns at the end and Carlos plays the incredible middle section. Whilst the playing of both guitarists is superb (and we must not forget what I assume is the Hammond B3 of the co – composer of the tune Gregg Rolie), it is Carlos’ contribution that blows the roof off. It’s a solo full of the usual Santana touches, the soaring sustained notes and the crunchy almost rhythm guitar like touches. It is a tune I keep coming back to for its lyricism and fire, and one that I sometimes think I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when they recorded it. The rest of the album ‘Caravanserai’ is well worth listening to. It marks a definite shift away from the rock sound of the first three records the group made, but it was a risky move and it is a record actually described by a company executive as “career suicide”, an opinion that proved groundless as it went on to win quite a few accolades. I think I’ll play it again…….

(Santana’s album ‘Caravanserai’ was issued on Columbia in October 1972. Those were the days my friend!).

In the water….

In the early 1990’s I was living in Bristol and training to be a Methodist minister. One of the things I had to do as part of the course was to undertake practical placements. The first (and most valuable) of these involved joining a swimming group at a local leisure centre. This group was made up of children who had cerebral palsy and my brief was to meet them, help them get changed and then work with them in the water. This amazing experience has stayed with me through the last 27 years as has the question that one of teachers from the school put to me at the every start of the placement, he put it very succinctly; “where is the image of God in these children?”. I was paired initially with a little boy called Joe and when I first met him he was sitting in his wheelchair impatient to get into the water! In fact the closer we got to swimming time his already wide smile grew and grew, and once he was in the water it was hard to keep hold of him! Instead of the limits of his chair the water gave him freedom to splash about to his heart’s content, it was truly amazing to be in his company. We ‘worked’ together consistently and I felt that the best thing I could do was to be guided by him and simply share the intense pleasure he got from being in the water.

After all these years I am still thinking about that question. If humanity is made in God’s image that must mean all of humanity, able and differently able – the reactions of other pool users during my time with Joe were sometimes quite disgusting, as if this little boy had no business enjoying the water along with them! But I also found myself thinking about what Joe’s humanity said about God – the God we often picture in our language as being beyond everything high and lifted up. Joe’s humanity reveals a deeper, and far more disturbing truth for our language and thinking about God. This is something I am still thinking about!!

After each placement visit we were asked to write a journal recording our thoughts and feelings about the encounters. I had written reams of bad poetry as an adolescent, but the following came out of this experience. Looking back on it I can see it is really about both of us! This poem/ reflection is called ‘Joe – the beginner’;

“Bounce my namesake

In the water,

Legs like poorly knotted string

Probe the pool’s smoothness

Seeking a purchase!

Whilst laughter splits the air

Like a swimmer breaking the surface.

Bubbles tickle like feathers as laughter is swallowed by water

Joe, we are all learners, chancing our arms

Like you almost afraid to trust

But excited by the opportunity!

I don’t know about ‘windows to the soul’, but your laughing eyes

Of deep and cobalt blue speak of deeper mysteries

Than my theologies can explore.

Bouncing like the red ball you pursue

Until your laughter swallows your fear,

Clinging to me like a wet leaf on a rainy window

A not so fragile acrobat – frightened by the water

Almost afraid to trust

But excited by the opportunity”.

I am really no closer to answering the question that was posed to me so long ago – except to say that I believe that God is closer to us than we think, and often comes to us in the people we ignore, and especially those we consider to be ‘differently able’. As Christmas approaches we are invited again to reflect not on a powerful politician, or a wise thinker, or a brave soldier, but a baby in a cradle – the very weakness of God that seeks to be born in us everyday.

(In writing this post I am remembering the late Revd. William Denning who encouraged my writing (and my ministry) in many ways).

In like Stan…..

When I heard of the death of Stan Lee I was both saddened and taken back to my younger days. These were the days before the behemoth that is the Marvel Comics Universe was seemingly everywhere and Marvel Comics were the magazines I bought in large numbers from newsagents and market stalls. I collected them and shared them with friends and watched as they became, in hands of people like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and particularly Jim Steranko, more than just ‘comic books’ but literature (this was also many years before the invention of the surely ironically named ‘graphic novels’). I remember the excitement that accompanied each new number and each twist and turn of the stories. I remember particularly the cover of an issue of ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ where Peter Parker leaves his suit in a dustbin and is pictured walking away with the header about something like ‘putting away childish things’. I remember the Baxter Building and the first appearance of Galactus and his herald The Silver Surfer, and The Inhumans and The X – Men and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD (the books where Jim Steranko’s innovative pencils and layouts provided a feast for the eyes and the heart).

Behind all of these visual wonders was the simple thought (which I am sure I saw on one of the covers) that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And also behind this was Smilin’ Stan, or Stan the Man and the people who worked in The Bullpen, a place of intense creativity and, if later accounts are to be believed, not a little rivalry. The intense atmosphere of a place like this is well captured in Michael Chabon’s marvellous novel ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’. Stan Lee was always there, as the fortunes of Marvel Comics waxed and waned, every movie in the MCU featured a cameo appearance and he even turned up in ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Despite the stories about his stormy relationship with Jack Kirby (surely a visionary in his own right!), and all the other stories that inevitably accrue around someone like him I remember him (and the others) with fondness and gratitude. Super hero stories are often judged on their violence (remember the halcyon days of the Comics Code?), and the movies often seem to be about people punching other people but, if you look carefully, you will find character development, fallibility, joy and sorrow all bundled together on cheap paper that somehow shone like gold. I also remember a magazine that Marvel put out for a short run called ‘Not Brand Echh’, a parody that I thought was ahead of its time in its ability to lampoon Marvel’s output and the rest of the burgeoning comics market. When I listen to some of the po – faced dialogue in some superhero films I long for those days. I remember my parents (forever responsible adults!) asking me how I could take this pile of coloured pictures seriously, and of course I did because of what it taught me about telling a story and drawing a picture, but also about what these books said about ‘life, the universe and everything’. Stan Lee took it seriously but also had the courage to laugh at himself, and for his gifts I will remain eternally grateful. Excelsior!!

(Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ (Fourth Estate 2000) should be on your bookshelf, in fact why are you not reading it now? 

‘The Beatles’.


Over the last few days I have been listening to a double album that is proverbially known as ‘The White Album’, mainly because of the cover, designed by Richard Hamilton and described by Ian MacDonald in his book ‘Revolution In The Head’ as “modishly empty”. My vinyl copy of this record was something slavishly saved up for (I have a memory which I think applies to this, of going to a record shop in Stockport called White and Swales and putting my savings in various denominations in the counter to buy the double album!). I carried it around to various houses once scratching the cover on the handlebars of my bike and I listened to it incessantly – even the eight minutes and twenty two seconds of Revolution No. 9 (which gave a different tenor to my parents inquiry “what on earth is that row?”).

Listening to the album now as the original recordings are released in various formats has sharpened my sense of how great a band The Beatles were. These records are sometimes cited as their death knell as a band, a situation only partially redeemed by Abbey Road. This position sees each member recording their own music and using the other members as session musicians, an extraordinary reversal of the remarkably unified sound of their earlier records. But I think that this is only partly true, the pressures were intense and to misquote John Lennon “the dream was over”, but ‘The Beatles’ still contains a lot of riches and a lot of evidence that despite the artistic and financial pressure the band were still functioning at a high level of creativity and daring. There is the diversity of the material, which like the transition from John Lennon’s dark and fragmentary ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ to Paul McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’ is sometimes bewildering; the tender ballads (like John Lennon’s ‘Julia’ and ‘Goodnight’, McCartney’s ‘I Will’ and ‘Blackbird’), the pastiches (‘Honey Pie’, ‘Rocky Racoon’), the Ringo song (‘Don’t Pass Me By’) and George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.(Whilst liking the version on this album, I find the acoustic version on the Anthology Volume 3 album even more moving. That tireless chronicler of all things Beatles Mark Lewisohn calls this version ‘exquisite’ and I agree), and the strange spiritual journey – song ‘Long, Long, Long’. There is also the weird Revolution No. 9, a piece that Ian MacDonald, writing in 1994, described in this way; “the world’s most widely distributed avant garde artefact. Around a million households owned copies of it within days of its release and, a quarter of a century later, it’s hearers number in the hundreds of millions”, he also described it as evoking the late 1960’s “revolutionary disruptions and their repercussions, and thus was culturally “one of the most significant acts the Beatles ever perpetrated”. In fact I think that there is something in that closing sequence of songs from say ‘Helter Skelter’ to the closing ‘Goodnight’ that shows their musical daring and ability to make a sequence of music that is startling and, in its own way quite disturbing.

Writing in The Guardian recently John Harris sees this music as perfect for the fractured times we live in, like me he wonders about “the unexplained mutterings, random shouts and musical snatches that….last only seconds” that punctuate the music. He looks at the state of the world in 1968 and the assassinations, invasions and political instability that form the atmosphere in which the record was made and suggests it is ideal music for now.

For myself, I come back to these records and find that it is almost as though I am hearing them for the first time, I find within them resonances of my own life and experience, perhaps the journey from naivete to some sort of maturity but also the sense that great art speaks not only in the time it was made but to all time. As I have written before there was a time when in my opinion The Beatles could do no wrong, they travelled with me from adolescence into adulthood, marking my journeys with their own. And I suppose that I listen now with my eyes open and although the idealism has gone, the quality of the music and the genius of these musicians remains, and thanks to advances in technology the music is refreshed and the creative process is revealed as they say ‘warts and all’.

John Harris closes his perceptive piece in The Guardian with a quote from Ecclesiastes; “What has been will be again, what has has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. That verse can be interpreted quite pessimistically, if nothing ever changes why bother. Yet The Beatles ‘White’ album closes with a sort of benediction. A goodnight wish that in spite of all the pressures and the pain, the joys and the laughter, the darkness and the light (all present in these songs), to quote Julian of Norwich “All things shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

(Ian McDonald’s book ‘Revolution in the Head’ is an indispensable guide to this music, and everything else that The Beatles did, as are Mark Lewisohn’s many books. They are well worth checking out. The Beatles Anthology recordings are widely available. The book of Ecclesiastes and the ‘Showings’ or ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian are always well worth reading. The photograph was on the notice board in my study for a long time. Just look how young they are!!).

A word about Kurt.

Normally I only sit down to write these posts after a great deal of thought. This is because I like to write carefully and with a little consideration, but sometimes I feel drawn to write something almost, as they say, off the cuff. This post comes about as a result of listening to some of Kurt Elling’s music; two tracks from his album ‘The Questions’ from this year (‘Endless Lawns’ his song based on music by Carla Bley and poem called ‘Winter Stars’ by Sara Teasdale), and his reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s standard ‘Skylark’) and, possibly my favourite Elling piece, the suite from his 1997 album ‘The Messenger’. This is made up of three movements; his and pianist Laurence Hobgood’s song based on some words by Thomas Merton ‘The Beauty of All Things’, a short piece called ‘The Dance’ and the wonderful ‘Prayer for Mr. Davis’, a threnody for the trumpeter who died in 1991. I have written about this last piece in a previous post and there is really nothing else I can do but to encourage you to seek out this music as soon as you can, either on your preferred streaming service, or maybe even by adopting the old school method of actually buying the music!

There is something about this music that moves me deeply. Kurt Elling is widely considered to be the finest jazz singer around these days. He has wisely avoided the pop cliches and the lure of the mainstream that can happen to some jazz musicians these days. His records remain resolutely jazz, and he uses the pop tradition in jazz without diminishing the jazz – no mean achievement in this age of musical homogeneity! He has also taken the tradition of jazz vocalese of singers like Jon Hendricks and the great Mark Murphy and extended it into new territory. He can scat with the best of the them (check out his amazing version of the Jimmy Heath tune ‘Gingerbread Boy’ on ‘The Messenger’) but also knows how sing good songs in a fairly conventional way – although the musicians he works with and his own talent as an improvising musician always guarantees a new way of finding new voices in familiar material. There is something deeply moving in his reading of ‘Skylark’, a song that provides a postscript (or a benediction?) to ‘The Questions’, a recording that comes out of the grace and turmoil of these troubled days,  and one that begins with Kurt’s reading of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A – Gonna Fall’ – a powerful and timely song if ever there was one!

Each record that he has made is different, presenting different sides of the vocalist’s art and also bringing fresh ears to material that needs to be heard afresh. I recently read that someone once described writing about music to be like ‘dancing to architecture’, and you might think that makes a post like this redundant – well, that is as maybe but…… There is nothing on this sweet earth that can make anyone who reads this immediately seek Kurt Elling out. I can only write about the way that this music makes me feel. And over the last couple of days this music has given me comfort and no small measure of hope.

(Kurt Elling’s albums are all widely available (and his website is  well worth a visit especially for some of his intelligent and well written reflections on music, theology, literature and jazz). ‘The Questions’ came from Sony Music/ Okeh this year, and ‘The Messenger’ was released on Blue Note in 1997).

It’s only words……

Even though I know about the importance of words sometimes things happen to reinforce that importance. Language and the way it is used is very much in the news these days. I think we are seeing a coarsening of public and political debate; from politicians to opinion formers (or should I say ‘influencers’?) all across the world we hear the most outrageous things concerning racism, sexism and about every other – ism you can think of. I was a brought up to believe that language was important – a conviction strengthened by some years as a preacher involved with what one writer calls “the word of truth”, in fact the verse is worth quoting in full; “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2; 15 in the English Standard Version).

So I was interested to see the reappearance of the word ‘theology’ in the political debate surrounding the fraught process of what we have come to call ‘Brexit’. Dominic Raab, the politician presently responsible for this process said this recently;

“And we saw a starkly one-sided approach to negotiation. Where the EU’s theological approach allows no room for serious compromise. And yet we are expected to cast aside the territorial integrity of our own country. If the EU want a deal, they need to get serious. And they need to do it now”.

This misuse of the word theological started when another British politician Harold Wilson used the word to describe complicated procedural issues within the Labour Party and in a letter written to a magazine in 1965 a correspondent summed up the frustration that comes from this misuse; “As one who has suffered much at the theologians’ hands I sympathise with the opinion that theology is often confused and remote. But the theologians have difficulty enough showing their subject is not non-sense; if ‘theology’ comes to mean obscure irrelevance, their case will be hopeless. Shall we keep ‘theology’ as a respectable word? 

I believe we should and fascinatingly, I found that Rowan Williams in his 2017 Harold Wilson Lecture, delivered to the University of Huddersfield, said theology might seem an abstract discipline. However, when properly understood as ‘the exploration of human dignity in the presence of the Creator’, it became a matter of real political significance, because it could muster resistance to the idea that power settles arguments.

I think that there is an important lesson here; the way we use words is important and the dangerous implications in terms of things like ‘hate – speech’ are plain for everyone to see, but everyone, and particularly those involved in shaping political and ethical debate has responsibility to think carefully about what they say and use words properly. Theology, like all disciplines,  can be abstract (although I find it fascinating that many powerful theologians these days (Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas to name but two) are, on the evidence of their recent writing, working hard to make their thinking accessible). They have perhaps recognised the need for theology to be of some use in pastoral work and life above all. Ivory towers are always there to be retreated to but if we are serious about “rightly handling the word of truth” we have to speak our ‘words about God’ (our theo – olgy!) in such a way that brings hope and not confusion to those we engage with. And we do this in this world of competing languages and an almost Babel – like confusion!!

And as if this post hadn’t dropped enough names, Justin Welby suggested recently that “All of us are theologians. As soon as we say anything about God we are speaking theology”. This is something I have believed for years. Language is such a valuable resource, we owe it to ourselves and others to use it properly. And as the Bee Gees once famously put it; “It’s only words, and words are all I have/  To take your heart away”.

(Dominic Raab’s comment was widely quoted in the British Press. The letter from 1965 I quoted comes from the archive of ‘The Spectator’ magazine).










Bread and Wine………..

“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable situation, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth”. The command that Gregory Dix refers to at the end of his magisterial work ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ is the command to share bread and wine in memory of Jesus. This command comes near the end of each gospel account, it forms a lead up to the death of Jesus, and also a clue to the mystery of the resurrection.

I have always felt that holy communion is the highest thing we do as Christians, for me is the springboard to other expressions of faith. This is because it is a very physical thing, involving eating and drinking, it involves movement in walking standing or kneeling. In contrast to the cerebral nature of much of Christianity this is a bodily celebration.It is striking that Jesus asked people to remember him this placing an act of memory at the heart of Christian faith and practice. The use of bread and wine places this ritual at the heart of life and although liturgies can seem to remove it from that arena, the simple sharing of bread and wine framed with a few words remains. Without ignoring the gospel accounts of what is known as The Last Supper, I find myself drawn back to the words of Paul of Tarsus. In words written before the gospel materials were collected, he wrote to the Corinthian church about eating together and remembering Jesus; Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of those words captures the essence of this process “You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt” (1 Corinthians 13 in The Message).

Despite the earthy visceral nature of this sharing there is a mystery at the heart of this act of sharing and thanksgiving. It is a mystery forged from the gracious engagement between the human and the divine that is a central conviction of the Christian faith. I want to take the best from ‘high’ liturgical approaches and also the Quaker understanding that every meal shared is a Eucharist because communion is too central to be limited to one approach. Remembering Jesus, giving thanks and eating and drinking together, what could be better?

(Gregory Dix’s book ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ is still around somewhere (I think), and Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the bible ‘The Message’ seems to be everywhere and in multiple formats. It is well worth investigating – especially for his rendering of the Psalms. In fact anything by this now passed wise teacher is worth reading (and thinking about!).

Shallows and Depths (or Lambs and Elephants).

I have wanted to post something about the Bible for ages now. It is a book I have been reading with varying degrees of success for almost 50 years and I am nowhere near coming close to solving its mysteries and contradictions. Some would say that is exactly as it should be because reading the bible is rightly a life’s work and as the hymn based on the words of one of the Pilgrim Fathers John Robinson helpfully reminds us;

“Not far beyond the sea, nor high
above the heavens, but very nigh
your voice, O God, is heard.
For each new step of faith we take
you have more truth and light to break
forth from your holy word”.

Yet, like all ‘holy scripture’ the Bible has been used and misused time and time again and many now live with the results of that abuse. I have come to believe that the bible contains the word of God (which is always something bigger than one book) but like all scripture it should be treated with critical respect. When I was at theological college I remember sitting in a group with a Muslim who remarked on the cavalier way we put our bibles on the floor under our chairs! This is something that has stayed with me as a cautionary tale but I also believe that the Bible is big enough to deal with all the critical approaches it has weathered over the years. This is because we do not worship the Bible but the God the Bible reveals. Also, as I look back on my ministry it strikes me that most fruitful times were not when I was trying to ‘run’ a church (I did try once!), but when a group of open minded people sat around a story or a text and “truth and light” broke all around us. Reading the bible always presents us with a creative tension; the commentator Matthew Henry (following the Nonconformist theologian John Owen) summed it up admirably when he suggested that the bible contains “shallows where a lamb could wade and depths where an elephant would drown”.

This is truth that cannot be contained in a series of tidy packages and any foray into the stories in scripture will demonstrate that! For what is scripture other than story which has become scripture through inspiration, encounter and use. Like all scripture, reading the bible also presents us with the reality of God; some talk of this book as the ‘word of God’ others may say that the book ‘contains’ the word of God, but either way reading is meant to lead to encounter. We have to hold the familiar in tension with the mysterious that prompts new discoveries and the way into that is to read it, alone and with others and always alongside the daily newspaper (or your chosen method of accessing the news cycles!). This book must never be read in a vacuum! And reading it changes things; there is a story told by St Augustine in his ‘Confessions’; whilst staying at a friend’s house and in some personal torment he found himself in a garden under a fig tree. He was weeping and questioning and he heard the “sing song voice of a child in a nearby house”. Again and again it repeated the refrain “take it and read, take it and read”. Augustine went back to his friend and his copy of Paul’s Epistles that he had left there. He read and as he wrote; “it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled”. Augustine’s experience changed the landscape of Christian theology forever. It is often said of the Bible “this book will change your life” but whatever scripture we read poses the question; who knows where our reading might take us when all we have to do, like Augustine, is ‘take it and read’!

The hymn ‘Not Far Beyond the Sea’ was written by G.B. Caird (1917 – 1984). The quotations from Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ (Book 8 section 12) come from the Penguin Classics edition (translated by R. S. Pine – Coffin 1961).