ART 'N SOUL

THE BIBLE BROODING AND BLACK - ALMOST A BLASPHEMY!

Fatal mistakes

"My granddaddy's bible, so brooding and black

Lies like a tombstone on my own daddy's back"

(from Musicians and Beer by Del Amitri)

 

The Good News of Jesus Christ has had bad PR for many centuries. We see it again here with these lines from Del Amitri’s new record Fatal Mistakes.

How can a book about salvation, justice, mercy, grace, love and hope have been caricatured as a brooding black tombstone. 

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The salvation history that runs through the entire Bible is all about light and freedom and carrying an easy burden. 

Some say, “Never judge a book by the cover”. Well, we all do. I don’t know who first set this Good News of the Scriptures between black leather covers. Maybe it was about protection. In those days centuries ago it perhaps didn’t matter. Maybe it was how precious books were covered.

Today though it portrays a different message as the Del Amitri lines reveal. In 2021 that black leather speaks of doom, death and judgement. The fear is that that is what we have been concentrating on in the preaching of it too. It’s handed down like a tombstone on our children’s backs.

It’s almost a blasphemy! Preaching recently on the Good news of the Kingdom of God I find it far more like a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colours. This is the story of the Light of the World.  

Forgive us Justin Currie and your father and his father too. 

Sadly you are not the only ones but black is a bad recommendation. Brooding should never be in the same sentence. Tombstones? No… Light shining out of empty tombs. The colours of rainbow hope and resurrection!


TRIBUTE TO MY FRIEND JAY SWARTZENDRUBER

Jay Swartzendruber

Late last night as I was scanning Facebook my friend Gar Seeger posted about the death of Jay Swartzendruber. I took a double take. Surely not. There have been far too many deaths of friends in recent months, so many younger than me, and Jay’s rattled me more than most. Jay death was sudden. He was only 52.

Jay Swartzendruber was a man of real authenticy and integrity. He was a man of God of the very best kind. He was a creative. Like me he used his creativity to promote creatives. He was a writer who enthused about music and propelled artists with his journalistic skills into the wider conscious.

When I met Jay he was editor of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) magazine that in the mid 90s was the voice of a huge industry. He was the friend of the artist. He was passionate about both the "music" and the "Christian" parts of the title.

Soon he was helping Steve Taylor launch Squint Entertainment and launching artists like Sixpence None The Richer out of that CCM ghetto and into the mainstream charts. I remember him sending me the video of Kiss Me that I showed to my students long before they were all singing along to it. It gave me some cred!

It was his place in that world of musicians with a Christian faith that got him his mention in my book Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2. In 2005 Jay was a conduit for Bono meeting up with some of CCM’s most influential musicians in the Art House in Nashville. 

While trying to convince President George W Bush to contribute more help to the HIV crisis in sub Sahara Africa, Bush had encouraged Bono to reach out to the evangelical Christian community of America. Bono did six weeks in the heartland and the Nashville meeting was an influential part of that. Jay was at the heart of it.

Jay was probably more conservative than I was both theologically and politically. For the last ten years he has been Copywriter at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He also liked George W Bush. We discussed that a few times.

With Jay, though there was never an argument. He held his views. He held them strongly. Yet, he shared them gently. As I spend time in the sacred space of reminiscing Jay’s passing it is that that rises to the top. Oh I loved that we loved music, the same music and how he enthused. 

Yet, it was his openness to listen and the gracious way he shared his views and never belittled the opinion of others that I treasure and am most inspired by. Jay was the epitome of grace, not grace as a theological concept so much as a way to live. The tributes from a wide range of friends is testament to a man who was consumed by the grace of God in fun, laughter, love and enthusiasm.

Now, here is the final twist. I only met Jay once in person. We were both involved in the marriage of our friends David Dark and Sarah Masen. Jay might have been the reason they got together.  

Jay is one of the reasons that I argue that social media is not an alternative to real life connection. It is a supplement. Indeed, there are many like Jay whom I meet rarely, if ever, but feel a spiritual kinship. Originally Jay and I were on an email community called Time Being set up by our mutual friend Lee Smithey. Then it was Facebook. Friendship continued.

In the last 24 hours I have read endless tributes to Jay. I recognise every one. The man I felt I knew thousands of miles away on social media is the same human being thanked and loved by those who knew him better. Love and prayers tonight to his close friends and to his wife Jaimie who will be most heartbroken of all.  


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... JEANINE CUMMINS' NOVEL AMERICAN DIRT

American Dirt

American Dirt is the most gripping read that you could ever imagine. From the first chapter where our main characters Lydia and Luca cower in a bathroom while their sixteen closes family members get brutally mowed down by gun fire in their yard we are on a danger filled drama for 450 pages that is not easy to put down. 

Lydia’s husband Sebastian was a journalist who exposed Javier a king pin in a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca immediately go on the run feeling that Javier’s cartel can track them down at any stage.

We therefore find ourselves in the shoes of a middle class woman and son who are not the kind of people we consider as migrants. Cummins is attempting to put middle class judgemental America into this migrant tale. We follow them through road blocks and after the meet two Honduran teenagers, also on the run from the rape of drug cartels, we travel with them on the notorious La Bestia, the train that migrants ride on the roof of in their dream to escape.

Cummins is a great writer and has the ability to write this fast moving drama and then scatter it with these tender and angry paragraphs of emotions. Her father died just as she started writing and grief runs through it. Hope is also found in some scarily broken places. She has also a poetic flair for setting the geographical scenes.

What I love as much as the surprise of being able to see our middle class selves in a migrants life is how she humanises the bad guys. Javier is a friend of hers, whom she really likes, before she discovers he is the brutal menacing leader of a drug cartel who threatens her life. She empathetically grieves with him at one stage in the book. 

Then there is what I am looking for in any art. Light from all quarters as the reformed theologians call it. The Gospel According To… as I have called it. American Dirt has lots of the spiritual. There is plenty of praying going on throughout. It seems to most of these migrants and those who take care of them, many of them in religious groups, as familiar as breathing.

Then there are my three top soul insights.

The first one is when Lydia and Luca seek refuge from an old friend of Lydia’s husband Carlos. Along with his wife Meredith he is now involved in an independent evangelical Church. 

When they find Carlos in that church, their dilemma is that the the next part of the journey through Mexico will be swarming with drug cartels. They will be blocking all the roads making Lydia and Luca very vulnerable to Javier’s drug buddies who she knows are after them. 

Carlos believes he has a way through. There is a Mission Team from Indiana at the church. On their way back to their flight home in Mexico City Carlos plans that they smuggle Lydia and Luca through the roadblocks in their minibus. 

Meredith is aghast. How can he think of putting the lives of this Mission Team in jeopardy? It would be too dangerous. Carlos’s question is a cutting one for those of us who, like I do every year, go on Mission Trips to LEDC (Less Economically Developed Countries):

 

“They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown kids.”

 

Wow! There has been a lot of consideration in Christian Mission over the last 20 years about such mission teams. It has produced books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts. Jeanine Cummins’ provocation here needs thought about.

Later in the book Lydia and Luca, by this time accompanied by the Honduran teenagers Soledad and Rebeca, come across another follower of Jesus who was not about the pancakes or selfies. 

They have climbed back off La Bestia train and are trying to get into a nearby town. A car pulls up and the man says he is a doctor and has a clinic. Lydia is by this stage ultra suspicious and is not sure whether to trust the man. Eventually Soledad who is least trusting of all asks:

 

“And why do you want to help us anyway?

The man touches the gold crucifix around his neck. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’

Lydia automatically blesses herself. ‘A stranger and you welcomed me’. She completes the Scripture, passing the water to Rebeca…

 

I loved this. The hairs on the back of my soul stood up. The authentic positives of following Jesus recognised in a modern novel. I am not sure where Jeanine’s Biblical worldview comes from but I wonder was this a genuine line that she heard while she researched the book among those from churches helping Migrants on the border.

There is one other insightful in the book that tugged at me.  They are about to meet the coyote that will see them safe across the border and through the dangerous desert to Tuscon. Lydia is worrying about the coyote’s trustworthiness, Giving him all her money. Once the money is handed over what incentives will he have left? Will he just leave them for dead? What choice does she have?

 

“So, Lydia is worried about all these things, and yet, she has a new understanding about the futility of worry. The worst will either happen or not happen, and there’s no worry that will make a difference in either direction.”

 

I was immediately hearing Jesus trying to share this in the Sermon on the Mount, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

I was also acutely aware that all the things I worry about, even in trying to navigate the borderland desert of a pandemic, are minor worries compared to what the majority of the rest of the world have to deal with… and seem to deal with with dignity, more trust and less fuss than those of us who are spoiled and feel entitled.

Which bring me back to what Cummins set out to do. She not only puts us middle class entitled on the La Bestia journey in Mexico to see the migrant crisis from a very different perspective but she reflects it back on us and the lives we live in our comfortable world, to see that in a different perspective too. 

It’s brilliant!


LOST LIVES - A Film Review

Lost Lives Film

The film Lost Lives, based on the book of the same name by David McKittrick et al that dispassionately catalogued 3,700 lives lost in the Northern Ireland Troubles, is a dissonant, disconcerting, disturbing, piece of beauty.

I struggle to type the word beauty. It seems out of place. It seems almost disparaging of the lives that are being spoken of, whether those are lives brutally cut way too short by horrible murder or the lives of those who have lived all the years since with the heartache and grief.

Yet, Lost Lives is a carefully and beautifully put together piece of film. The film makers Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt have spoken of not making a documentary but a film inspired by the book. This is what the book evoked in the heart of two artists.

What they therefore create is this blend and blur of wonder and danger, calm and confusion, beauty and violence. There are images of sea and mountain of wild deer and dead suburban rats, sacred churches and desolate buildings.

This is all a discordant and frenetic background into which they then edit in news clips of bombs and funerals and overlay the stories of 20 of the 3,700 entries in the book. They add no script. Only what is in the book.

On this fascinatingly disturbing canvas Dermpt Lavery and Michael Hewitt use the gravitas of the voices of an array of Ireland’s best actors including Liam Neeson, Kenneth Brannagh, Roma Downey and Bronagh Waugh to tell the stories of lives dismissed, destroyed and discarded by a bloody hatred that is almost impossible to fathom. The final piece of the magnificence is a requiem like soundtrack by the Ulster Orchestra.

Lost Lives is a work of original imagination but it the film is not about the art. It is about the lives lost. When it comes to these live lost this is a arduous tale of horrible inhumanity. There is absolutely no beauty in the content.

The stories are a hard listen. The one year old shot by the bullet that went through her seven years old sister’s skirt; the family including two children under 18 months who were blown up in the Dublin bombs; the two Protestant brothers killed for dating Catholic girls yet we don’t which side did the deed; a few teenagers lives over before they began. Then there is the grief and heartache of this left behind. There are the suicides too.

“War is hell” is how Michael Hewitt described it. More poignant were the words of Mrs Orr’s, mother of those sons murdered for dating the wrong girls, “It’s like sitting and watching a nation committing suicide and there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

Most philosophical of all were the words of James Kennedy’s father. James was 15 when he was killed in the Graham’s Bookies’ massacre in 1992. James’ mother died of a broken heart just two years later. James’s dad said, “The bullets didn’t just travel in distance. They travel in time. Some of those bullets will never stop travelling.” 

Indeed… and we as a nation need to see this film, hear these stories and view that this inhumane monster of cold blooded carnage never raises its head ever again. 


THE NEXT RIGHT THING - A LESSON FOR DARK PLACES IN FROZEN 2

Frozen2-the-next-right-thing

I have a friend who found himself in a dark place. His daughter was very ill. During a hospital stay they got an afternoon at the movies. Frozen 2. Wasn’t my friend’s idea of a favourite film. Yet, he shared with me a profound moment that had spoken directly to him.

In the film, Anna is in very dark spot. Olaf is dying in Anna’s arms. It seems that she has now lost Olaf and her sister Elsa. She feels that she has no reason to go on. 

This is very dark for a Disney movie. Yet, we need to remember that all those old nursery rhymes were about dark places. Ring A Ring Of Roses has been associated with the Great Plague! 

Songs or films might be the way for children to come to terms with loss and life’s difficult realties. I am hearing from families of young children how many tears were shed in this particular scene of Frozen 2.

All of course is not lost in Frozen 2. The words of Pabbie the troll comes to Anna:

 

This grief has a gravity

It pulls me down

But a tiny voice whispers in my mind

"You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

And do the next right thing”

 

These are heavy lyrics for a Children’s movie soundtrack. They are what Leonard Cohen would call the crack by which the light gets in. Anna listens to the whisper. She realises that “the next right thing” is all that she can do.

This is a clue for us all.

A look across the Scriptures and we find people who did the next right thing in their darkness. In the Old Testament the Israelites often found themselves in political darkness or exile. In those times God called them to do do the right things as he loved them back to where they should be. 

In the New Testament some found darkness forced on them. Zechariah struck blind until he called his son John. St Paul also struck blind and fasted and prayed until Ananias visited him. In another situation Paul and Silas in chains in a prison. The next right thing of praising God changed everything around them.

For “Do the next right thing” read Jesus words, “Follow me”. Serving others. Loving neighbour and enemy. Reaching out to the least of these. It is finding God in the dark. In some ways doing the next right thing is actually throwing an arc of light across the dark.

Back to my friend who was moved by Frozen 2. He told me that the scene and song about the next right move reminded him of an incident many years before. He had had a particular heartbreaking moment. 

On the way home he came across a man whose car had broken down. In the darkness of his own life my friend did the next right thing that appeared in his vision. He helped the man start his car.  He continued home a little lighter of heart.

Whatever the dark, may we all hear those lines. Hope lies within:

 

"You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

And do the next right thing”.


TOM WAITS GODLESS? HE DOESN'T THINK SO... ME NEITHER!

Waits 2

As a result of his concentration on things dark and sinful, many have accused Tom Waits of being godless. Even Ireland’s Hot Press magazine that is not in any way keen to find Jesus in anything called Blood Money a “Jesusless” album. In that same interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air she mentions a song Down There By The Train that Waits wrote for Johnny Cash: 

 

FRESH AIR INTERVIEWER: - “It’s funny, when he sings it, it sounds like an unusual spiritual and usually you right about godlessness.

WAITS:  Godlessness?  Really? Oh!

FA: Wouldn’t you say

WAITS: I don’t know about that

FA The absence of God

TW. I don’t know. Do you think so?

FA Well some of the songs. Well one explicitly God’s Away On Business

TW – Oh  Ok. Well he’s away. He’s not gone. He’s just away. You have to understand he was on business. A guy like him has got top be busy, looking after a lot of things.

 

It is sadly difficult to actually describe the surprise and consternation in Waits voice that his music should be labelled such. The impression is certainly that it has never crossed his mind. There are many little glimpses of grace and Jesus in Wait’s work. It is not predominant by any means and if you are not looking as obviously Terry wasn’t then you could miss it, just like life really! But just like life He is there to be found and to give another hue to the black underbelly of the human experience. That song given to Johnny Cash for his fantastic American Recording series oozes a confident hope in redemption; “There’s room for the forsaken/If you’re there on time/You’ll be washed of all your sins/And of all your crime.” What will wash the sin; the blood of the lamb! 

The Cash song is not just an isolated incident. The Blind Boys Of Alabama with their sixty year old fermented brew of Gospel and blues recast two of Waits songs on their 2001 album Spirit Of The Century. Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon is taken out of the scariest of all Waits albums Bone Machine and the despairing characters of Waits population and given a hopeful expectant celebratory Gospel feel. There is still the confession of a drink habit that God knows about and seems to be aware that he is made of dust and allow for the frailty. Way Down In The Hole seems a likely location for all characters Waitsian  but it is the devil that we trying to keep down here in a song that begins in the garden just as mankind did but the warning Waits gives in watching your back is just the entire length of history too late.

The most epic mercy drenched Gospel song in Waits’ work is an amazing album called Jesus Blood Has Never Failed Me Yet. Classical composer Gavin Bryers has found a cassette tape of a tramp singing the traditional old hymn. It was ragged, frail and you could almost feel the freezing cold of the street and touch the texture of the cardboard shelter and the newspaper blanket. Very Waits! Just as vivid is the truth of the words of the hymn. Here is a man with nothing finding transcendent hope and comfort. There is no quick fix solution. He is not looking for one. Spiritual reality for the tramp is not some miraculous turn around of circumstances that would led him into a comfortable semi detached house on the stockbroker belt of London where he would find himself leading an Alpha group in a lively Church Of England fellowship and a member of the golf club. Those things had nothing to do with the deal that God gives. This tramp has never known the blood of Christ to fail him. It finds him where he is and sustains him in his lack of material sustenance. 

That Tom Waits should get involved in such a project is perfect. The depth of emotion that this ad lib song caused led Bryers to compose a piece of music around it. Tom Waits added his voice to that of the tramp. These are the people he loves. These are the people he brings dignity too. In spite of the wretchedness of a world where you could easily believe God’s Away on Business there is belief and that belief changes things. Here on the street, his most beloved habitat Waits gets to sing a duet in a near intimate fellowship with a fellow soul who wants to sing praise. 

 

(this blog is taken from my book THE ROCK CRIES OUT; FINDING ETERNAL TRUTH IN UNLIKELY MUSIC)


TOM WAITS - A LITTLE LIKE JESUS?

Waits 1

I stepped out over the prostitutes and headed towards the headquarters of my church denomination. The house I was about to move into had been damaged in one of the last bombs of the recent Irish troubles (and no I was not living there at the time and no it was not an everyday occurrence!!!) and I had been relocated to Belfast city centre. Without a television my then girl friend, now wife, and I would sit on the window ledge and watch Belfast give us a live performance on a Saturday night. It was more exciting. A drugs drop there and all kinds of goings on over there and you use that telephone kiosk at your own risk! So, I got used to the prostitutes congregated at the door of the flats. As I walked away from them this particular morning I felt a deep desire to connect, say hello, give them a little bit of dignity that society and this morning me in my actions withholds from them. 

Yet, was this not a good Christian upbringing. Prostitutes are no kind of women for a good Christian boy to be making connections with. Of course it was the exact opposite. As I walked away I realised that Jesus would have been so comfortable chatting to prostitutes that he would probably have sat down on the steps beside them and forgot about all the so-called business he had to do at Church House. Befriending prostitutes would have been a higher priority. So as I gazed across all the books I had read and conferences I had attended and sermons I had heard, and even preached, about following Jesus I began to ask why I had not been taught how to just pass the time of day with the people Jesus seemed to hang out with.

Tom Waits has spent his career raising the profile of the people that Jesus hung out with and the Church usually has no time for. Waits most famous prostitute song is Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis. In the form of a note in the seasonal greeting the story is a happy one. Here is a woman whose world is turning around. She is off the drugs and quit the drink and found a man who will love the baby she is carrying even though it is not his. Sadly in the last verse she throws off all pretence and admits there is no man and she needs money to pay a lawyer to get her out of jail. Waits added even more poignancy and sadness to the tale live by adding Silent Night to the beginning. It adds to the possibility of hope but brings reality crashing even more cruelly in the absence of a happy ending. 

Waits’ work has been founded on the freaks, the outcasts, the most intriguing of the marginalized. Prostitutes, strippers, fugitives, hoodlums, criminals, tramps, sewer dwellers, soldiers mostly war veterans, murderers, arsonists and the widest variety of drunks imaginable. Where many writers write about themselves or their peers, Waits has a pastor’s care for people he sees, writing songs to empathise, in many ways with the hope of exorcising their demons. Demons seem to over populate Waits’ albums and the devil himself hangs out but so does Jesus in maybe not equal measure but certainly with equal power. Singing about these characters, bringing them alive in songs and no doubt exaggerating them for poetic effect may be one of his ways to “Keep the devil down in the hole.” Another similarity to Jesus and niggling little jibe at the Church is how Waits loves them no matter what. The grace and the dignity he puts into their lives along with the dime or quarter he drops into their hand is never dependent on “successful” conclusions to their tragedy.

The religious leaders of his day could never quite understand why Jesus would hang out with Tom Waitsian characters. He would often say that the doctor does not come for the well but the sick and he would also set a new rule of thumb for our social connections; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Tom Waits was a last shall be first man. There is a marvellous story to illustrate the point that Jay S Jacob recounts in his biography Wild Years though he is unable to confirm if it is true or exaggerated. Whether it is true or like Jesus story of the Prodigal Son which though not true is most definitely true, who cares! 

Apparently near the Main Point venue in Philadelphia there was a restaurant and bar called H.A Winstons. Taking pride in their classy joint they would have a lot of the Main Point performers drop by. They wanted Waits though and he would never come. Classy was not his thing. In most cities he would reside and eat in the wrong side of town either feeling more comfortable there or always researching his songs or both. One night Waits turns up at Winstons and there is great excitement but Waits walks past the classiness and finds Artie the dishwasher who he hangs with for an hour washing dishes, ignoring those who were deserving of his company. Artie had played somewhere with Waits and he thought he would hear his story. The dishwasher was the last in the pecking order and Artie was not liked much but he who was first connected at his level to bring him grace and dignity. Jesus did the same for a guy named Zaccheus in Jericho one day. As a tax collector this little man was reviled in his day as a drug pusher might be in the neighbourhood today. Hated and the last person who deserved time with the days pop star storyteller, it was he who Jesus sought out and had dinner with. Wonder if they did the dishes together! 

 

(this blog is taken from my book THE ROCK CRIES OUT: DISCOVERING ETERNAL TRUTH IN UNLIKELY MUSIC)


A BIG DECISION? AN OPEN DOOR? CUT THE CORD!

Killers

“And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord...”

-      From Human by The Killers

Ten years ago, this was the lyric that I carried all the way through the process of leaving a job I loved in Queen’s University Chaplaincy to go back into parish ministry at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church.

For me, the invitation to consider becoming the minister at Fitzroy was a huge honour and I had to think about it but I had never considered going back into Church life. Fitzroy’s potential excited me but I was nervous every time I caught sight of that open door.

Being a Presbyterian process, it took eight months between the initial phone call to think about it and to actually being installed as minister. Throughout that wait I sang over and over again this spiritual wisdom of Brandon Flowers.

I had to close my eyes and seek God in ways I had never done. Prayer, connecting with God, was vital. If I was going to take the risk that this would be for me and my family, I needed to find time to talk it over with God and to listen. I would need to be sure that the fit was right and that I was taking the next step in my following of Jesus.

Next up I had to clear my heart in readiness for a spiritual change, the way we cleared our house for the physical move. I needed to take all the selfish ideas of my own which might have been the selfishness for safety or the selfishness of being flattered that Fitzroy were interested and what a prestigious thing to be their minister. The heart needed cleared of me, to be given the holy space that might allow God to fill that heart with what was good.

In the end, after all was weighed up and without any doubt in my heart and mind that God was calling us to go... we had to cut the cord!

This last step is the trickiest of all. It takes courage. It means leaving where all is safe and comfortable and jumping with faith and trust into the new world that beckons. To move on means not looking back. It is done and I am thankful to these words as the soundtrack to the entire process. Like Paul in Philippians, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Perhaps you are in one of life's tricky spots. A big decision. An open door beckons but... I think The Killers are suggesting we take a deep breath, then gather up all of the courage we can muster and then... a step of faith... cut the cord!


KUMBUKUMBU NZURI ART EXHIBITION IN FITZROY - INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST KENNY WOODROW

Kenny's Art

Kumbukumbu nzuri is a new exhibition by Kenny Woodrow that we are thrilled to have in our Grace and Imagination Gallery in Fitzroy. Kumbukumbu nzuri is a collection of Kenny's East African paintings from Kenya and Tanzania. An English translation of the Swahili is ‘Beautiful/Good memories’. 

This is a stunningly vibrant and beautiful collection of work that draws you into East African life. These painting will captivate the eye as you walk past them and the second look that they will demand from you will have your brain engaged and your heart touched.

Take a journey into dress, customs and everyday working life of east Africa. I asked Kenny a few questions about himself, his art and Kumbukumbu nzuri

 

When did you first discover a love or gift for art?

My earliest memory of someone commenting on my artwork was in Primary school after I had completed a foiled paper mosaic picture of a colourful parrot. The picture brightened up the magnolia painted wall in the wee country primary school near Ballymena!

 

How did that develop?

Art was a subject I enjoyed in secondary school. I received encouragement in my efforts and I also had a Chinese friend who was a really talented fine art artist who showed me what could be achieved with a bit of effort. I was able to take his ‘constructive criticism’ of my work at a time when most said – Oh, that’s nice! In secondary school and later in grammar school I had the opportunity to use different materials but always preferred fine art (drawing, painting), rather than working in graphics, ceramics or sculpture. I studied education with Art as my main subject in Stranmillis and after graduating taught Art in a special school in SEELB. Secondary school, grammar school and Teacher training college were all part of my development, and I was ready for new creative challenges during these stages.

 

What about your own style. How did you find that?

I don’t think I’ve found one or settled on a style yet. Surely there has to be more to discover!!

I really enjoyed my time studying History of Art, looking at lots of different artists work, trying to figure out how they technically achieved the effect they did. Back in Northern Ireland I enjoy Arts TV programmes that describe the society artists were living in at the time, and the way their artistic style developed over their lifetime.

I also now have had exposure to African artists work. East Africa has a great art style called TINGA, TINGA, which portrays stylised safari animals and Africa landscapes. It’s great to see how resourceful artists are with the lack of artists materials available to them. Most people will see my work as realism.

My work as an illustrator with Wycliffe meant that I had to ensure that the pictures were very realistic is style. No figures were to be placed behind boulders and figures had to show all the limbs, otherwise the people they were intended for could be confused.

Illustrations in these early reading Literacy booklets were to be kept simple as adult readers were beginning to learn how to read a picture as well as learn how to read text. Outside of the restraints of my work assignment, I regularly came across people, situations, places that I visually thought would make great images to represent artistically. A camera is a great tool for helping capture these moments.  The only problem is, you never have  the camera about when the event is happening!

 

This exhibition is set in East Africa. How did you end up there?

This is a conversation that should take place over a coffee! The short answer is that I, along with Andrea, were supported as we began a ‘short term’ assignment with Wycliffe Bible Translators. I should say our 2 year assignment has extended to beyond 20 years of service now! We both left our teaching jobs in Northern Ireland and with continued prayer and financial support, served as support personnel for Wycliffe missionaries working with people groups in Kenya, Uganda and eventually in Tanzania.

As a couple we had been exploring options of Christian service with quite a few missionary organisations but it wasn’t until a Wycliffe missionary explained the need for ‘anyone good at drawing’ to help translation projects with producing literacy materials, that we believed this was a ministry we were gifted to serve with. Following a number of preparation years with Wycliffe, we began our overseas assignment with Wycliffe in Kenya and were seconded to assist Bible Translation and Literacy (BTL) projects.

These early years of service overseas still have a huge impact on our appreciation of what God is doing among many diverse ethnic groups in East Africa. Over the years we have come across men, women and children of faith, who despite many challenging personal circumstances are passionate about seeing God extend his kingdom during their season of ministry.

 

What caught your attention to do these particular pieces?

The pieces are from 2 different periods of our family living in East Africa. The Kenya paintings are images, which I suppose, have a real personal interest for me. When you come across people groups such as Rendille, Samburu, Borana, Turkana, Daasanach for the first time, you are immediately struck by their appearance which is so different from anything you’d see in Ahoghill!!

In my oil paintings of women, I wanted to show what they wear and how they adorn themselves while living in a remote location. No Boots Chemist to call into, or Claire’s for accessories! You really need to have an understanding of their culture to make any sense of why they appear as they do, and the roles that they play within their group.

The paintings that I have of women record anthropological details, as well as maybe being interesting to look at. One of my maasai woman paintings show how a mother uses a wrap to carry her baby. Another painting is of a group of Rendille women. Although the painting shows what they wear and the adornments they have around their neck and arms, one woman in the composition does not have her head shaven as she is showing to her community that she is pregnant.

The maasai men usually dress in a particular way with a brightly coloured blanket. Their standing posture reminds me of historical sculptured figures I had studied previously during History of Art revising, but I also wanted to show what else they usually have with them including their dagger, urungu, and stick. Again, the stick has a particular meaning among the men’s peer group and community.

The Tanzania and Zanzibar paintings are large oil paint versions of previous artwork I completed when living in Dar es Salaam.   

 

Did you do this art on the field? If not, what did you work off? memory? Photos?

Life in another culture for an extended period of time may not always go as you hope for or had planned! I did have opportunities to train local artists and get involved with Literacy projects, but a large proportion of my time has been ensuring scripture books and literacy books are ready to be sent to print. As a change from working with typeset documents and strange looking fonts that won’t print correctly, etc, I do look for ways to keep the creative juices flowing. I recently was bought a really good digital camera that has allowed me to capture scenes and moments that I wish I’d captured previously.

After living for more than 3 years in a country, you become more selective about what pictures you want to take, and what meaning the activity you captured is trying to show.

The second assignment for our family in East Africa was a request to work in Tanzania and as I thought of the variety of images I had taken of men, women and children I wanted a new way to try and paint them. I tend to let pictures percolate in my imagination for a while before I attempt them.

Trying to paint with oil paints in Tanzania wasn’t a great success and became a source of frustration. Working from photographs I had taken during my travels and holiday my first attempts were created on paper using oil pastel. 12 images were produced with the intention of returning to the images at some point when we would be living in a cooler climate where I could use oil paint.

I had to wait 2-3 years, when we returned to NI, before I could continue with my ambition to have the Tanzania images, painted on large canvases using oil paint. I bought a second hand wooden garden shed - via a well-known discount website - and built a studio in our back yard. It’s been great to have the room, the accessibility to art materials, and the time to enjoy painting and drawing again.

I always saw the Tanzania based oil paintings as a series that needed to be seen together, rather than paintings that were to be shown when they were individually completed. I’ve recently returned to realistic pencil drawing again as a skill which needs to be practised regularly and is something which I hope will develop my future work. Digital technology for artwork can create incredible images, but for me, there’s something more engaging/valuable in a work of art that someone has taken time and interest in producing and is able to share with others.

 

What do you hope people might gain from the exhibition?

My immediate reply to this is to scream… ‘THERE’S A BIGGER WORLD OUT THERE, NORTHERN IRELAND!!’

It’s been interesting and perhaps disappointing to discover there’s not much interest in Africa based artwork in Northern Ireland as I’ve talked with various gallery owners. I hope that friends who have regularly asked me how the artwork was going, will be able to see the paintings as a collection rather than as individual pieces. As well as having anthropological interest in the figures appearing in the paintings I hope that most of the work will be considered a colourful celebration of life lived out in East Africa.

 

KUMBUKUMBU NZURI will show in the Grace and Imagination Gallery, Fitzroy from November 30 - January 22 (open at Fitzroy events and when staff are in the building - use Rugby Road door)

 

 


THE QUESTION MARK IN LIFE ON MARS? - PAT DUIGNAN'S FUNERAL SERMON

Life On Mars?

Not even Janice, my wife, knows this but Pat Duignan helped in a spiritual awakening for me. In my early 40s I discovered, at the school gates, that I was socially incompetent. 

Since I was 17 I had spent almost all of my time with Church people. I studied Theology at Queen’s, in Union College. I went to the Christian Union. I was then placed in a Church and worked in Churches for the next two decades. It was a bubble, an ivory tower.

When Caitlin and Jasmine went to school I discovered people who were not living in my bubble. I felt insecure. What do I talk about? Pat was the one I was most drawn to. He seemed to have as many rock t-shirts as I did. I so wanted to talk to him about music. What would he think of me, a minister? Well, I guess in the end it seems to have gone quite well. Here I am! Thank you Pat.

Over the last fifteen years, every time we saw each other we talked music. Bowie, Arcade Fire. Bowie. The Waterboys. Bowie. Dylan. Bowie. Van Morrison. Bowie. 

I will always see Pat when I hear David Bowie. Goodness he is wearing a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt in his coffin today and I am gutted I didn’t think of wearing one over my clerical shirt.

Thinking of today I was immediately down to Bowie’s song Lazarus, released just days before Bowie died:

 

“Look up here, I'm in heaven

I've got scars that can't be seen

I've got drama, can't be stolen

Everybody knows me now

Look up here, man, I'm in danger

I've got nothing left to lose

I'm so high it makes my brain whirl

Dropped my cell phone down below

Ain't that just like me?

 

This way or no way

You know, I'll be free

Just like that bluebird

Now ain't that just like me?

Oh I'll be free

Just like that bluebird

Oh I'll be free

Ain't that just like me?”

 

Just like Pat.

Now, over these past few days I have had the joy of listening to a lot of music. Self indulging in Bowie and Arcade Fire and calling it work. I even bought a couple of Bowie books. I wonder can I claim them against tax!

I was drawn to Changes - “Time may change me/But I can't trace time”.  There was Lazarus that I just mentioned and features in the Bible. There was (You Will) Set This World On Fire that I will mention a little later. Of course, there is also Ashes To Ashes which I might have to avoid at the committal later. Yu don’t need to hear me say at the Crematorium:

 

“Ashes To Ashes Funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junkie”

 

Sorry. I am aware that I need the right amount of Pat’s irreverence and a little of what as a reverend I need to have. This is all about balance!

In the end I decided to build this address round the song Life On Mars? There was some debate about which song Pat wanted is coffin carried out to. Alex (daughter) thought it might be Space Oddity but Gloria (wife) was sure it was Life On Mars? She remembers him mentioning the question mark. That question mark was the detail that convinced me.

Who knew about the question mark other than Pat… me… and a few other anoraks! My feeling was that the question mark was important to Pat.

In his first book on Bowie’s songs, Rebel Rebel, Chris O’Leary writes: “In a few lines Bowie captures a teenagers life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness, its uneasy cynicism.”

You can see why it caught Pat’s teenage soul. Oh! You Pretty Things with its exclamation mark is also about questioning:

 

"Written in pain, written in awe

By a puzzled man who questioned what are here for"

 

Surely Pat’s songs were his way into the questions? What is this life all about? Is there life after? What about God? Many of us enjoyed following in the slipstream of Pat’s energy… the energy of the question mark.

BUT the question mark doesn’t end here. The family will have many questions. How did this happen? How did he fall? Why was there no medical way to save him? 

My prayer is that all those sharp question marks in the family’s hearts and souls and minds will be comforted by God. Jesus called the Holy Spirit a Comforter and I hope Jesus is proven right. 

Of course we all have question marks. I have. I am asking if Pat heard the Bible verses I read to him in hospital? Did he find the peace that I prayed that he would have? A peace beyond understanding. A peace that the world cannot give.

All of us are on what I call sacred ground in these days. We are in this space between earth and the beyond. It is ground to reflect on good times. We laugh a lot on this sacred ground. We weep a lot. We question a lot. My Bible readings today from Isaiah 40 and Luke 9 had lots of question marks. Who is God? Who can compare to God? Who is Jesus? Do we gain the world and lose our souls?

The morning after Bowie died I had to do Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2. Here is what I said:  

 

“Bowie will be remembered way beyond his innovative songs… as an actor, an artist in its widest sense, a pusher of the boundaries of fashion, a blurrer of the lines of sexuality… 

Perhaps some think that as a Reverend being a Bowie fan is a guilty pleasure… BUT we shouldn’t forget his spirituality either.

I remember the shock when he dropped to his knees during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium and recited the Lord’s Prayer. 

He said afterwards, “In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable.

On his 2013 record The Next Day Bowie took the words of St Catherine of Sienna and made them into a guitar strut of a Pause For Thought. The song (You Will) Set The World On Fire is taken from St Catherine’s words “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire”.

In the lyrics of this song and the riffed up music he sets it to Bowie expressed perfectly Jesus intentions for all of us when he told his disciples he had come to give them life and life in all its fullness. 

As a rock star David Bowie lived a full life and if we lean and listen closely to the tributes and reminisces this week then we will hear him encourage us to do the same… like David Bowie “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire…” … and as with Major Tom, “may God’s love be with you”

 

Here in Fitzroy we believe that God answers a few questions. We believe that God knows what we are made for. Not just as a human race but as individuals… 

We believe something in humanity broke down. Humans reached to be more… and became less. Jesus was born, died, resurrected and ascended to heal the brokenness. God came to earth to deal with the questions marks. 

So thank you Pat for leaving us to ponder Life On Mars and its question mark. Gloria, Alex and Christopher, may God comfort all your question marks. All of us, let us take these question marks about God and life, the the after life and who we were meant to be into the rest of our lives.