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June 2011

DENISON WITMER - The Ones Who Wait

Denison Ones Who Wait 

Denison Witmer is a lovely human being. Now I don’t mean lovely in a wiffly inconsequential sense but in the most satisfying human beings to be around kind of lovely. The man is an understated paradigm of all that is good about human beings.

Denison Witmer makes lovely records. Now I don’t mean lovely in the wiffly inconsequential sense but in the most stunningly crafted songs to have on your iPod kind of lovely. The man makes understated albums of beautiful ambience and depth. His voice and the space he creates between chords is a sonic delight. Think somewhere between Iron & Wine and Elliott Smith with faith and hope added!

Witmer’s lyrical ability is to sing about life’s everyday ordinary moments and relationships and in doing so somehow give permission for your own ordinary life to seem more extraordinary. Denison has lost his father recently and this is a collection of songs that mix the immediate raw pain of loss with the catharsis of reflection and the hint of hope when your grieving journey is far enough on to wish to contemplate that. Music has many attributes to help the healing process of grief and this would be a wonderful gift to anyone who has just lost a loved one.  

On The Ones Who Wait we are the mourners grieving the loss of loved ones who have moved on to their hope and left us with our memories and a pain inducing void. The angry Psalmist response is found in Cursing, “Cursing in the name of God, throwing both my hands up now” but faith is glimpsed in the follow up rhetorical question, “Do you have a better idea than what I have?” Elsewhere it is philosophical reflection on his father’s life and influence upon Denison. “How a father always starts out as a son, how sometimes you’re both, sometimes you’re only one” from Hold On reminded me of the weekend when my own father-in-law moved from one to the other. “Now I wear my influence on the outside of my skin, started with an influence on the inside of my skin” is the realisation that the man is always alive in his son and with age it becomes more and more obvious. The hopefulness of “I live in your ghost/ your ghost lives in me now/ I live in your ghost/ you live in the host ever after” takes us out in a conclusion that believes with confidence “a home for your soul” and the ones who wait pondering what that home or heaven might be.

If you are thinking that an album about death is not what you are looking for I take you back to the top. It is all typically Denison Witmer understated. On the surface this is simply a lovely album. If you want to look deeper than deeper will be touched and touched for the healthy disposition of your soul. Absolutely lovely but not wiffly inconsequential!



"Seek First His Kingdom and Righteouness" Reshaped


I love it when the Bible speaks to me, especially when I’m not reading it! I have written before about how we have flattened the Bible’s dimensions and limited it to a book to be read rather than a book to be lived and a book that surrounds and infuses every thought we make. It is a book that was never meant to be confined to words on a page. It is the potent word, always alive to possibility, lifting off the page to hover and haunt and have its way.  

So, there is this one verse that has been doing a work on me. It began a few months ago when a friend who had been blown off his feet by the winds of life’s rough justice asked me what it meant to “ first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We were looking at the verse as it had come to us, almost in mantra form, over thirty or forty years of our lives. My friend had been seeking God in prayer and striving to live a holy life. Yet, as he did he seemed to be struggling in the things that he felt should be added. My original suggestion was that the things being added were his serenity, patience and his ability and indeed new desire to make do with less in material terms. I think that made some sense...

...and then... I was reading a book about Bob Dylan, Tangled Up In The Bible, and the writer Michael J Gilmour, a Professor in New Testament in his day job, wrote of The Kingdom of God and “a clear sense of the priority the quest must take in the disciple’s life.” My Biblical antenna immediately shot up and I wondered where were we given the Kingdom of God as priority. The answer was one of those eureka moments in Bible reading - “But seek first his kingdom...” Now I’d never read it like that. Like so much of Scripture, when it is handed down and becomes too familiar, I had not read it as it was written but as how it had been fed to me. Like my friend the forty years of mantra had caused me to misinterpret such a key text. It wasn’t the Kingdom Of God, his will on earth as it is in heaven, that I thought we were to seek. I had focused on personal piety and missed the social missional priority of my life.

Less than twenty four hours later, the sword was pushed deeper and twisted; probably not the correct image! Anyway, Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff was preaching in Fitzroy and he was leading us expositionally through the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Now, I had read this in his book Justice; Rights and Wrongs, but he hammered it home in this preaching context that the word we translate righteousness in the English translations of the Bible are actually translated justice in most other languages. I have since consulted my New Testament Greek adviser and indeed Wolterstorff’s case is more than erudite and indeed our translation of righteousness needs bolstered too! Hence, my forty year old mantra gets another bashing out of one shape into another, “But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Oh my word... or oh God’s Word actually!

I could never understand how this verse concluded what Jesus had to say about not worrying about food and clothes. There seemed something too passive about our lack of worry and what about my African brothers and sisters who have a life or death right to really worry about them. In the forty year old pietist mantra of the passage I was left uneasy but not anymore. Now, as with the rest of the Sermon On The Mount this becomes an active passage; if we seek God’s Kingdom and justice then that justice will mean that everyone will have their daily bread and clothing needs. If we bring God’s will on earth we will have nothing more to worry about.

This is God opening up the Word. It is exciting how the Spirit can cut through. It is frightening how we can have got it so wrong or maybe not so completely wrong as one dimensional for so long. This new shape will cause us to reassess, to reapply, to seek forgiveness for our sins of omission in mission and to radically turn around how we do discipleship.

Lyric For The Day 14.6.11 from Crazy Horses by The Osmonds

Crazy Horses 

“There's a message floatin' in the air
Come from crazy horses ridin' everywhere
It's a warning, it's in every tongue
Gotta stop them crazy horses on the run

What a show, there they go smokin' up the sky, yeah
Crazy horses all got riders and they're you and I

Crazy horses
Crazy horses
Crazy horses
Crazy horses”

-      from Crazy Horses by The Osmonds

So I’m reading Simple Twist Of Fate by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard and enjoying it very much. However, they have a go at quite a lot of other artists around the turn of the sixties and the seventies and when they took out their ire on The Osmonds I had to hit back. I could find no way more subversive than outing a guilty pleasure and making The Osmonds the Lyric For The Day.

Yes, The Osmonds were bubble gum pop but having been given their teen years to do pop instead of be Mormon missionaries the boys took the opportunity to give a little bit of depth to a very shallow pop scene. They released a concept album about religion called the Plan which Slade, Gary Glitter, David Cassidy and the bay City Rollers certainly were not doing! On Crazy Horses they were bigging up that environmental cause way before it became popular. Way back in 1972, in between the youngest siblings twee hits Long Haired Lover From Liverpool and Why?, this Utah boy band were warning us about the consequences of our actions on the planet. Far from Dylanesque in lyrical dexterity but a mighty warning all the same!

JUSTICE BENEDICTION (on Pentecost Sunday)

(On Pentecost Sunday we had the privilege of listening to Nicholas Wolterstorff preaching on justice from Matthew 25... knowing I had to pray the benediction I scribbled this down...)


Father God, teach us that

Worldly wealth is not treasure

Ceasefire is not peace

And benevolence is not justice

Jesus, call us with conviction to follow you

Into the upside down Kingdom

And Spirit, on this Pentecost Sunday

Give us your discernment, inspiration, courage and power

To seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice

Knowing that when we do

Everything we need will be added to us.


Lyric For The Day 12.06.11 from Incandescent Blue by Bruce Cockburn

Dragons Jaw 

“Oh -- tongues of fire, come and kiss my brow
if I ever needed you, well I need you now”

-      from Incandescent Blue by Bruce Cockburn

It is Pentecost Sunday, the day the Church remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and my good friend and fellow Fitzrovian John Trinder reminded me of this lyric for the day. It is from Canadian Bruce Cockburn’s mystically charged Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaw album and this is in keeping with the poetry and spiritual subjectivity of that album.

Wishing Bruce Cockburn Was Here

Lyric For The Day 10.6.11 from Bring OnThe Wonder by Susan Enan

Susan Enan Plainsong 

“I can't see the stars anymore living here
Lets go to the hills where the outlines are clear

Bring on the wonder
Bring on the song
I pushed you down deep in my soul for too long...”

-      From Bring On The Wonder by Susan Enan (Sarah McLachlan)

 Written by my friend Susan Enan and released on her beautiful album Plainsong this little gem was covered recently by Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan. It is a little song of epiphany. Our mutual friend Mark McCleary once spoke of being in his drive way gazing up in wonder at the stars and when his eyes fell back to earth he could see the light of televisions in every house in his street. His conclusion was that we had been the wonder of the natural genius of the created world to sit hypnotized to artificial human made light. That’s what Susan is saying here. How far down have we pushed transcendent wonder. We need to rediscover it. Written in East Belfast a place where transcendence is never on the surface of things but where the CS Lewis conjured another world beyond the wardrobe and where Van Morrison imagined Astral Weeks. Bring it on!

Susan Enan Plainsong review

Lyrics For The Day - from Robbie Robertson and Over The Rhine

Robbie Robertson 

And the river was overflowing
And the sky was fiery red
You gotta play the hand that's dealt ya
That's what the old man always said

Fallen Angel
Casts a shadow up against the sun
If my eyes could see
The spirit of the chosen one

In my dream the pipes were playing
In my dream I lost a friend
Come down Gabriel and blow your horn
'Cause some day we will meet again

-      From Fallen Angel by Robbie Robertson

I was out driving the other evening and slid Robbie Robertson’s eponymous album, his first solo record, into the CD player. I hadn’t played it in a while and remembered first its eighties production and after that I rediscovered some great songs but it was these lines that really jumped out at me. As a minister out visiting, I deal with many moments where I am in that sacred space of loss and “the hand that’s dealt ya.” Gabriel blowing his horn to herald in a new world order where the tragic is dealt with and our losses are found again is a very hopeful image. Roberston wrote it for his old mate in the band, Riichard Manuel, who had just passed away It took me immediately to my good friends Over The Rhine and their song about such a time...

Trumpet Child 

The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

-      From The Trumpet Child by Over The Rhine

This is one of my favourite Over The Rhine hymns, filled with good Biblical images and eschatological theology. I love the way they have drawn in modern jazz images around the end times trumpet theme with Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and Thelonious Monk appearing alongside Gabriel. I love the improvised Kingdom, a thought I take into every day and the different drum beat of that Kingdom. The fulfilment of that kingdom is a lovely image too, the bride leaning in and the world reborn with all the damage we do it daily redeemed! Oh for that trumpet sound!

Lyric For The Day 8.6.11 from Sit Down by James


“Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
In love, in fear, in hate, in tears
In love, in fear, in hate, in tears
In love, in fear, in hate, in tears
In love, in fear, in hate

Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, down
In sympathy”

-      From Sit Down by James

This hit from the early nineties and indeed late nineties too even though written in 1988 had passed me by as a lovely summer anthem for rock festivals. Then at a meeting of the Mornington Community Project last week one of the Board Ken Humphries shared in passing how this used to be the song of the project. I went back to it and found a song that rings with belonging and empathy. It is about finding that place where you are unconditionally loved and welcomed into community, large or small. Writer Tim Booth apparently wrote it for two of his heroines Doris Lessing and Patti Smith. It was also sung by Jesus in the BBC’s “Manchester Passion.” From the lips of Jesus it becomes even more potent. What better welcome can I give anyone I meet today in need of some love.

Barb Jungr - Man In The Long Black Coat

Man In The Long Black Coat 

My friend Lesley hates anyone covering Bob Dylan. For her no one can do it like Bob and The White House should stop anyone from trying; freedom should allow you to carry guns but not sing Blowing In The Wind in public (well actually  Lesley would be against the guns too!). I agree with Lesley about no guns but have always loved Bob Dylan covers. His songs have so many twists and turns and nuances and shades and moods that different artists have always drawn out new things as they make Dylan their own. I mean life without Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower? Or Nick Cave’s Death Is Not The End? Sinead O’Connor’s I Believe In You? Bryan Ferry’s  A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall? Just recently I watched a live recording of Liam O Maonlai and Glen Hansard performing Pressing On and it blew my little mind and soul!

Not that everything song is well covered. A whole album of Dylan by Barbara Dickson didn’t really light my fire. Bryan Ferry’s effort was not just as good as the Dylan one of two songs he had already done on other records. Lesley has much fuel for her argument. When it comes to Barb Jungr’s second collection of Dylan I am not sure how Lesley would take it but I am loving. Even the one or two where the jury is still out have challenged me to reassess those Dylan songs. Jungr released Every Grain of Sand a number of years ago and has been doing the odd Dylan song per album since. This is a collection of those and four brand new performances.

 Jungr is Scottish and a cello player who brings all kinds of eclectic templates to Dylan songs. Jungr slows up Like A Rolling Stone which makes the sense of isolation of “how does it feel” even more painful; the piano swathes like waves on the beach where Sara is set is simply gorgeous; God On Our Side with the stripped of anything prophetic voice at beginning and end is compelling; the big bass and finger clicking of Trouble In Mind is spiritually riveting; a little swing in the mini epic of musical styles on Blind Willie McTell reveals and achieves Jungr’s ambition.

Every song has its place though her energetic The Times They Are A-Changing and the brightness of Just like A Woman might have my friend Lesley for cover (bad pun!). On the album notes of Every Grain of Sand Jungr spoke of a spiritual moment in the mountains of The Isle of Sky and being so moved that she started singing the great Dylan hymn Every Grain Of Sand and later of a voice that spoke to her like some hear God saying “Record Bob Dylan.” I am not sure the depth or hue of that spirituality but spiritual is what Jungr brings to Dylan. The idea of her being banned from making an album as qualitative as this should always banned.   

Lyric For The Day 6.6.11 from Mercy Now by Mary Gauthier

Mercy Now

“My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That's going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now

Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race
Towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, well
They'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don't deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now”

-      Mercy Now by Mary Gauthier

I heard this song last night on a TV programme called Case Histories. I had no idea who the song was by but a quick Google and I was admiring the work of Mary Gauthier again. What an amazing song. Gauthier was orphaned as a child and adopted by Italian Catholics and that religious influence breaks into her work here. The need for everyone of this mercy and the fact that this transcendent mercy in a hand of grace is humankind’s only hope makes this a prayer for Church on Sunday; a Church that Gauthier claims to love but also be aware of her precarious place.