We approach you and worship you as
And yet as we draw near you this Christmas season
We cannot help but be provoked by something
Out of kilter, amiss and askew
Instead of a throne in heaven
We are aware of a manger of straw
Instead of robed religious dignitaries
We are aware of cattle, sheep and shepherds
Straight from the fields
Instead of theology graduates in gowns
We are aware of mystical eastern star gazers.
And even more bizarre and disturbing
We are aware of the people of God
Who should know better
Who know enough to search the Holy Scriptures
To find the truth of such events
Using their knowledge
Not to approach you in worship
But to flood the streets of David’s city
With the blood of innocent children and babies
And sending the long awaited and yearned for Messiah
Fleeing his life to Egypt as a refugee
God as we approach you this Christmas
We approach a God who emptied himself
Who gave up his safety and comfort
Who made himself nothing
And left himself vulnerable
God as we approach such wonder
Such a mystery
Such an upside down view of the world
Force us to ask ourselves
Give us a snippet of history’s greatest refrain
The greatest news to be sung to humanity
That God loved us and demonstrated his love for us in this
That while we were still sinners
He was born and lived and died for us
So God as we approach you tonight
We are acutely aware of a God who gave up everything
And if we listen closely we can hear you whisper to us
From the straw of the manger
From the refugee road to Egypt
From the seashore of no reputation
From the mountain of the sermon
From the journey to Calvary
From a cross of wood
Follow me... follow me... follow me...
As the Father sent me so I am sending you
You are the light of the world
The salt of the earth
God as we approach you this Christmas
Give us the courage, the bravery
To follow you…
To give our lives
To be servants of others…
God we thank you for the wonder of the poetry and art and transforming power of Christmas
That inspired these readings and carols and thoughts...
Make these words flesh in us...
In this baby name
THE BABY IN STRAW
Lord forgive us when we are matter of fact about Your unbelievable birth
Help us to see it as it is
The one who is above us
Becoming lower than all of us
So that none of us would be in awe of approaching a baby in straw
Help us to see that this baby is Your gift to us
The extent of Your love for us
Help us to believe that we are loved...
Lord forgive us when we explain and memorise Your indescribable birth
Help us to see it as it is
The word becoming flesh to live for awhile among us
Your actions being louder than the words of prophets or patriarchs or psalmists
You becoming one of us in order to reach us with Your love
Help us to see this baby as an example for us
That we too would act louder than we speak
And reach out to others with Your love...
Lord forgive us when we reduce Your spectacular birth to the ordinary
Help us to see it as it is
The birth of a whole new world
A birth whose circumstances would be lived out and taught in the rest of Your ministry
A little inkling of Your upside down and radical kingdom
Help us to see this new world order
That we might seek treasure in heaven rather than on earth
That we might long to be poor, meek and peacemakers
So that Your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven...
Bob Dylan’s Christmas album has been a talking point in Bobdom for some time. When one of my best Bob fans dismissed it I didn’t rush to acquire. How wrong he is and I was! “How does it feel?” is a question synonymous with Dylan and here he doesn’t tell you how Christmas feels; he makes you feel it! There is warmth to this collection of songs that has you gathered with the family, round a hearth filled with a burning log fire, singing along to Theme Time radio. That particular radio show that Bob has been hosting for a few years has, without doubt, influenced the choice of songs and the fifties arrangements that they are dressed up in. The little vocal backings are so un-Dylan but so Christmas. Who would have imagined forty years ago that we would ever hear Bob Dylan cover songs originally released by the likes of Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, Jim Reeves and Dean Martin!
Don’t for a minute, though, think this is a throwaway album by an artist who used to deal in world changing events! For the Christian this is maybe the world changing event and Dylan doesn’t miss the history changing implications. Christmas In The Heart captured in both personas of the season. There is the Santa centred, gift giving, chestnuts roasting one where everyone switches off their selfishness for a day or two and cuddles into the best of their humanity considering! Many Christians throw out this “secular” festival as a curse on the blessing of the real meaning of the season. Dylan rightfully celebrates this side of the season for the sense of joy and fun that shortens a dark winter and brings people together. However, he doesn’t let it get in the way of the more deeply rooted meaning of the season. Santa at Christmas is no harm providing it doesn’t distract from the real possibility for humans of this remembrance. These Christmas Carols would not have been in the family repertoire back in Bob’s Duluth upbringing. Dylan grew up Jewish and had an intensive conversion to Christianity before keeping everyone, maybe even himself, wondering since the early eighties. On this record Dylan doesn’t miss the theological implications at all. Most Carols pack a storytelling theology carrying weightiness and here he does powerful versions of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful including the Latin, The First Noel and A version of O Little Town of Bethlehem that ends with a long Amen that more than suggests Dylan’s emphasis.
It was in keeping with the Christmas season's “Good news of great joy for all people...” that I opened our Carol Service last night with the news that Rage Against The Machine are Number 1 in the UK Pop Charts! What is the big deal? Well, for the last five years a strategically marketed consumerist pop machine has stolen the Christmas Number 1 single in the UK. Television phenomenon X Factor has ended their final show with the declaration of its winner whose single then goes on sale a couple of hours later, at the outset of the Christmas week single sales download- off. In well over fifty years of the single sales charts it has been the most cynical and contrived fixing of the pop charts and in the last couple of years there has been a bit of a backlash with attempts last year to get Jeff Buckley’s majestic version of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah to number one instead of the X Factor winner Alexandra’s rather more anaemic version, though to be fair to Alexandra Burke it wasn’t the worst X Factor Number 1! This year’s campaign led by Jon and Tracy Morter from their own front room via Facebook had enough support to cause Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to sell 50,000 more downloads than Joe McElderry’s The Climb, all the more remarkable for being only available on download and never being “officially” released!
Though Rage Against the Machine was the perfect name for the band that broke the Machine’s monopoly and dictatorial inevitability, I was slightly disappointed with its choice; it is actually part of the same “Machine” as the X Factor winner being released on the same record label! For me, if they had thought a little more carefully they could have had Grizzly Bear at Number 1. Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is up and around many people’s best album of 2009 and being an independent release would really have been a real David beats Goliath kind of Christmas. However, Jon and Tracy were probably not thinking too deeply when their wizard wheeze was set in motion and well done to them. Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, described it as “incredible organic grassroots campaign” and that is what the lesson has to be; that a small private thought shared in everyday conversation has the power to change how the world is and literally rage against the machine!
This is the biggest victory over X Factor. For a couple of years I have been suggesting in my preaching that I believed X Factor to be spiritually dangerous. Reformed theologian Calvin Seerveld has warned that,”any public which denies artistry its rightful place under the sun forfeits a rich source of imaginative knowledge. If the public is unwilling to learn the difference between, on the one hand, the visionary leader and the honest artisan and, on the other hand, the shyster, the opportunist and the trendy fellow traveller, that public will become colourless or a pastiche. This means that people at large are called upon to be attentive, relatively well informed, critically compassionate patrons of the arts.” X Factor is an archetypal machine of the shyster and it has I believe implication for our society and the follower of Jesus whose task is bringing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Alex Petridis, the rock music critic for the Guardian, argues that what is happening in the pop and rock scene have sociological implications. In his music review of 2007 he argued that the Pop Idol and X Factor has produced democratic record deals and ultimately diluted the edge of music. If an artist wants to get the vote of the armchair television watcher he has to sing songs that appeal to the 8 year old child and their octogenarian Granny in order to maximise their vote. This affects the art, blands it out, leaves it insipid and anaemic. That the youth of the 00s are less radical or revolutionary than their 60s counterparts should not surprise us he concludes.
Rock legend Joni Mitchell, one of the paragons of change in the sixties also believes that we are suffering the affects of musical dullness. Quizzed by MOJO’s Robert Hilburn on the long-term impact of the musical and cultural strides made by her contemporaries, she described them as “the greediest generation in the history of America”, and despaired of the example they have shown subsequent generations. Asked about the strong undercurrent of discontent in her most recent album, 2007’s Shine, she replied; “I was angry at the handling of New Orleans and how quick the American people were to impeach a man for sex and how slow to move on other things that made everyone in the world want to nuke America. I was also angry at the inability of this generation to know what to do; their inability to move at all, which is an unusual thing for youth.”
Asked what she meant exactly, Mitchell went into overdrive, “In their youth, my generation was ready to change the world, but when the baton was passed to them in the ‘70s, they fell into a mass depression because all revolutionaries are quick to demolish and slow to fix. When handed the baton to fix it, they didn’t know what to do so they kind of degenerated into the greediest generation in the history of America. The hippie, yippie, yuppie transition from the ’60s to the ’70s to the greedy ’80s and Ronald Reagan – my generation dropped the baton and spawned this totally lacklustre generation... Machiavelli said, ‘People don’t know what to do with peace. It always degenerates into fashion and fornication,’ and that’s what we have. We are not building the kind of strong people in this third generation that we are going to need for the catastrophes that lie ahead. They aren’t getting any ethical instruction. I’m reluctant to say moral because it can get so diabolical. The things that are done in the name of morality are completely diabolical.”
To the theologian, the rock journalist and song-writing legend I want to add the concerns of the pastor. My personal concern is for the effects of the music we listen to on our ability to follow Jesus. Does the music we listen to help or hinder us as we attempt to live this radical way of life that is an antithesis of the spirit of our age? Does it give our subversive lifestyle edge or does it blunt our sharpness? My concern heightens not lessens when I critique the effectiveness of modern worship music. Has the emergence of a worship industry with its own pop scene, chart stars and place on our iPod playlists had any implications on our Church liturgy and personal spiritual development? By not using strategically music for spiritual formation and societal transformation are we allowing it to rot our souls, make us flabby and unfit to be disciples of Christ? I think so and X Factor is the machine that needs raged against if we are turn these events around. Perhaps this little victory over the Christmas Number 1 Single will inspire a whole generation to rise up and rage against a good many other bigger and more dangerous machines and fight a few good fights once again!
Just a little note to let you know this week's goings on from your web host Stocki in his new role as vicar of Fitzroy Presbyterian, 77 University Street, BELFAST.
At the morning service (11am) he will be looking at the secret to world mission as found in the Nativity scene and a look at how God trump carded the "post modern age!" All encompassed in Fitzroy's ususal vinrant and varied celebratory praise!
In the evening @ 7pm... "The Gospel According To... Christmas Songs." Worship from The Blues Shepherds (hopefully drying cloth headed!) and a look at The Killers, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn among others!
Check out the Fitzroy web page at... http://www.fitzroy.org.uk/
and listen to Stocki's old sermons at... http://www.fitzroy.org.uk/Groups/80917/Fitzroy_Presbyterian_Church/Worship/Sermons/Sermons.aspx
Apologies for the blip on the last two weeks' sermons... back to normal soon!
It is nearly 25 years since Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers released their last live album, though there have been a variety of DVDs through the years. The Live Anthology covers all the gaps in between with recordings from as early as 1980 to as recent as 2007. The wonderful thing about Petty is that he doesn’t just copycat the studio versions but allows The Heartbreakers to jam it up and when you have players of the calibre of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench around you so you should! Petty’s Heartbreakers are perhaps the biggest in demand session players in rock and they have the ability to make good songs really great in the live setting. There are far too many highlights over these four discs to mention but as well as the most familiar Refugee, American Girl and Free Falling there are those songs that got lost in the sizeable catalogue that get rediscovered here like Straight Into Darkness, Nightwatchman and Have Love, Will Travel. Beyond those there are the rarities like Surrender, a Petty composition never before released, and covers like I Just Want To Make Love to You, Good Good Lovin’, Green Onions and bizarrely the Bond theme Goldfinger.
The centre piece for me is the cover of Van Morrison’s Mystic Eyes and not just because it is a Florida band singing a song from the streets around my Church in Belfast. In this eight minute version, of an originally less than three minute Them single, Petty slows the band and hushes them down before chanting, “Wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment everything was all right.” It is rock n roll theatre, playing with the emotions of the crowd but it is also a fundamental purpose of rock music. Many have damned rock as of the devil, destructive and damaging to the world order. Yet, Petty’s purity of hopefulness in the middle of Mystic Eyes fires much of the rock n roll that we love. It is constructive, seeking a better day, challenging any oppressive systems or regimes. From the Negro Spirituals that rock was born out of to Springsteen, U2 and Tom Petty music has fired the dream of a better day. Petty’s chant could be about music as escapism, as much pop has been in these last fifty years, but more than escapism music has the potential to be transformative to the personal soul or the social structures and injustices around us.
This Live Anthology does not reveal Petty as a political rock artist though he has fought his battles through the years, neither is it meaningless fluff. Petty is a major player in the history of rock and this Anthology show the consistent quality of his work.
Paul McCartney has had such bad press recent years being tarnished as some soft MOR embarrassment. You shudder at how that can have happened to the man who changed the history and artistic power of rock ‘n roll in that six year recording period recently re-released in The Beatles Remastered series; fourteen albums, two of them double, in let me say it again, just six years! The Remasters not only reminded the listener of McCartney’s part in the most prolifically brilliant song writing partnership of the latter half of the Twentieth Century but, in the clearer sound, his bass playing demanded a whole new level of admiration. The Remasters tell us loud and clear that The Beatles were more than a soundtrack to the Sixties; those boys could play!
McCartney’s latest live album takes you on a journey back to those heady days. The second CD has only one post-Beatles’ song. It took McCartney until 1976 to add a couple of Beatles’ songs to his Wings’ live concert sets and a few found their way onto, perhaps his best ever live offering, Wings Over America but since that time he has been unabashed in his liberal smattering of Lennon-McCartney and even Harrison songs. Whether you are listening to McCartney live or on DVD or CD (both in this package) you feel the bombardment of classic songs from Day Tripper to Let It Be to Get Back to Yesterday. The first disc though shows us that, though bulkier and as a result perhaps more dross, McCartney has a strong post-Beatles’ catalogue too. The obvious Band On The Run and Jet sit alongside the less praised Flaming Pie, Mrs Vandebilt and two of his most recent compositions under his less-secret-than-it-was alias The Fireman.
Amidst it all there is an intriguing little trilogy of songs; My Love, Here Today, Blackbird. These songs cover every phase, Wings, solo and The Beatles respectively and reveal succinctly the various McCartney subject matter. My Love is one of the consummate McCartney love songs of which there are probably more than needed though he did say on Silly Love Songs, “You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs/I look around me and I see it isn't so/Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs/And what's wrong with that/I'd like to know/'cause here I go again.” Blackbird is the political Macca, singing about the Civil Rights Movement and he does it with a little more subtlety than his Give Ireland Back to the Irish. Here Today is a beautiful letter to John Lennon written shortly after his death and far from the only time that McCartney reminisces; his last studio album Memory Almost Full has lashings of pre fame Liverpool. Lennon’s shadow for good and bad seems to hang over McCartney’s entire life and work.
Good Evening New York is McCartney’s second live album this decade and his fourth in twenty years. He is a Beatle so the demand for product is obvious. In the old days people bootlegged tours and now that it is cheaper to release live albums the bootlegger is pretty much out flanked by official releases, so the vast audiences who have seen McCartney in recent years can have a record of what they saw and heard. That is the function of this great live album that has not the same interest or novelty of Wings Over America in 1976 but if you are a fan then it is another reminder of a career and a really great way to distil your vast McCartney collection into a car stereo compact listen. Embarrassing? Certainly not!
FOR GOD’S SAKE GIVE US SOME REALITY
Alain Emerson shared this line from a Jeff Lucas sermon... written at a sanitised and inane Carol Service on the day that I watched one of my students bury the love of her life, who had been killed in a car accident.
Nicely rounded explanations
Safe and sanitised solutions
A magic text for every doubt
A definitive answer for every mystery
“There, there everything’s going to be alright.”
FOR GOD’S SAKE GIVE US SOME REALITY.
A woman abused and left used, abused and lonely
A teenage widow behind the love of her life’s coffin
A child whose legs were ripped from his body by landmines
A ten year old township orphan cooking for her little brothers
A father whose child has been found strangled in the forest park
FOR GOD’S SAKE GIVE US SOME REALITY.
A recently wall papered stable
Freshly washed cattle and perfumed straw
A carpenter with extra mural studies in midwifery
Theologically sound eastern stargazing mystics
A perfect little baby “no crying he makes”
FOR GOD’S SAKE GIVE US SOME REALITY.
Impoverished and homeless
Germs breeding in the filth and squalor
A teenage girl screams birth fierce pain
Death squads in the dawn’s first light
Refugees running in fear of their lives
FOR GOD’S SAKE, BORN INTO THE MIDST OF REALITY.