SONGS FOR A HEALTHY SOUL

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... IMAGINE (by John Lennon)

Imagine2009

photo: The John Lennon Wall in Prague by Paul Bowman

 

“Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try…”

 

Imagine is John Lennon’s finest moment. It is his Yesterday. His Something. A year after The Beatles, in his big house in Surrey, Lennon wrote this hymn to change the world. It is utterly beautiful from the piano playing, to the melody, to the lyrics, to the brother and sisterhood of humanity sentiment. Klaus Voorman is right when he says that they should have released just the piano version.

If the whole song is Lennon’s attempt at his own Sermon On The Mount then that opening line is most iconic of all. Many conclude that this is an atheist hymn, a humanist hymn. Some whacky Americans who think that any kind of interest in helping of the poor is Soviet styled Communism might even find reason to refuse a man a Green Card because of such a song. 

Now I need to not be naive. John Lennon ran on a lot of momentary surges of adrenaline. As his son Sean said, while hosting a radio documentary to mark his dad’s 40th Birthday, Lennon changed his opinions every couple of years. 

Imagine was written at a time of political interest that was very absent from his final Double Fantasy record. From 1969 to 1972 John Lennon was all about revolution and Imagine was perhaps the most beautifully crafted protest song ever written. As he said himself it was Working Class Hero with a big dollop of sugar on top! 

When you imagine something you are thinking beyond the reality before you. Imagining no heaven kind of suggests that there is a heaven and you need to somehow imagine it away.

This is not creedal or theological. It is poetry. Lennon is making a point, not about the existence of heaven but about doing something about the state of the world now. It might even be a dig at the church for lying back and waiting for the sweet by and by rather than bringing God’s Kingdom here… now.

I have grown to see Imagine as some kind of prayer. Interestingly Lennon cited about prayer “in the Christian idiom” given to him by African American comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory as an influence on the song. In his book The Gospel According To The Beatles, Steve Turner tells us that Gregory didn’t remember what the book was but it was about positivity. 

The Imagine idea came from Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono; many of his ideas did. She had a book called Grapefruit in which she imagined weird things in keeping with her avant garde art approach:

 

Imagine the clouds dripping.

Dig a hole in your garden to

put them in 

 

Lennon took Yoko’s crazier idea and earthed it.

Yet, for me imagining is what prayer is. You have to imagine what you are asking God for. If that is a change in my own life, I need to imagine it. If that is a change in someone’s life around me I need to imagine it. If that is transformation across my neighbourhood, city, nation or world then I need to imagine it. Peace needs imagined. Justice needs imagined. Hope needs imagined. Love needs imagined.

Yoko Ono still believes that the imagination is the power in itself. I don’t. I believe that the imaging leads to prayer and from prayer to action. When I recite “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it fires some serious imaginings. I then have to open my eyes, get off my knees and offer myself to God as an answer. Just imagining ain’t cutting it with me… or the world!

Which brings me back to that opening line. I have often said that imagining no heaven is easy. What if… what if John… what if we believed that there was a heaven and then imagined what it was like and imagined what it would look like right here on earth… now. That John would be in keeping with the spirit of your amazing song for the human race but it would now come with the creativity of God the Father, the revolutionary teaching and work of Jesus the son and the continued out working power of the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Imagine that!


GOD SEES YOU

I See You

To be seen. I have been amazed recently at how many times a simple text, social media message or phone call has been received with a "thank you for seeing me". Coronavirus times have isolated us. We have felt a little alienated from our communities. To be seen has become something special. 

Hagar was the focus of a sermon Rev Lesley- Ann Wilson preached in Fitzroy on International Women’s Day just a week before our world went into lockdown. Having just returned from a trip to the Wilderness in the Holy Land, Lesley had some rich content for the sermon.

I was very drawn to the story. It resonated with me as the Biblical outworking of a Martyn Joseph song and a great truth that all of us can take into our lives.

Hagar was like an invisible woman. A slave to begin with she is then given by Sarah to Abram to give them a child. Sarah then became jealous of her and mistreated her. She heads out into the dessert to escape.

Then this invisible woman becomes the first person in Scripture to be visited by an angel. After God blessed Hagar the text tells us:

 

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to : “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:13-14)

 

I love this. God sees Hagar. She knows it and calls God, “the God who sees me”and the well “The well of the one who sees me”.

In a life that seemed invisible, where nobody cared and everyone seemed to be abusing her she is seen by God. Wow!

I was immediately drawn to on elf my favourite Martyn Joseph songs, I See You.

From his first Sony album Being There released in 1992 Martyn himself described the song at the time:

 

“A simple statement of my personal belief, that no one will, or does, get any eternally with anything.”

 

That fascinates me. Martyn’s focus in writing seems to have been those who carried out evil acts. God sees them. They won’t get away with it.

I have always heard the song as being about the victims. God sees the victims. He sees the the impact of evil.

To know that God sees us will change our sense of self worth and hope. Whatever we are struggling through. Whatever is going against us. God sees us as he did Hagar. Wow. I’ll take that encouragement:

 

“I see the playgrounds with drugs

Children’s cloths in the mud

Starvation

Segregation

What about salvation

I see you, nothing escapes my attention”

 

God sees you. It is good to be seen. It is good to see others too.


WAR IS OVER (DID WE WIN)

 

It has been a bit of a tradition that my good friend Martyn Joseph always played Belfast in the first week in November. It was the juxtaposition of one of those gigs and Remembrance Sunday that led to me writing the lyrics to this.

If I remember it right Martyn mentioned a new world beginning. In Martyn's catalogue of songs that is not hard to imagine. He is a songwriter who kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, to paraphrase another such singer, Bruce Cockburn. Martyn never shies away from the despair of our world but somehow hope and love and peace always win by the time he walks off stage. 

So, Martyn's words started to blend in my mind with Remembrance Day and our Sunday morning act of Remembrance in Fitzroy.

I am struck every Remembrance Sunday that I am remembering those in their late teens who sat in the same building and pews that we are today, then went off to war and never came back.

I always see the late teens who sit in those pews now, think of the pastor's love I have for them, and imagine if I had to pray them off to war, or hear the news they had died at the Somme or had to pray at some funeral service for them. I actually am doing just that for those Fitzroy teens who went to war back then.

So, all this in my head and heart and soul I wrote this and had the idea that one of our teens might make it a song and sing it on Sunday... to give voice to his Fitzroy equivalent in 1914... queue the talented Jonny Fitch. 

 


BREATHE... DEEPLY IN THE SILENCE

Breathe

The theme of this year's 4 Corners Festival is Breathe... In the intensity of the times we are inviting everyone to take a deep breath and join us in our explorations of mental health, prayer and embodied breath, racism, abuse, creation care, and more. Help us breathe out hope in troubling times.

This song came to mind as I pondered the festival's theme. We had the privilege last year of having a Gary Lightbody interview as part of the Festival. This Snow Patrol song uses breathing as a way to find equilibrium in difficult moments.

I think that this is one of Belfast band’s most complete song. The stripped down version on BBC Radio 2: The Piano Room reeks out even more poignancy. It takes the emotional tenderness of Run and Crashing Cars, gives it that Snow Patrol anthemic swell and then adds the ingredients that make it a song for a healthy soul.

It is very much a pastoral song in my idea of that entity. That first listen came at a time when a good friend was going through a dark night of the soul and all I could think about was that this was everything I wanted to tell her. I immediately linked it with U2’s Stuck In A Moment but felt that it went further and deeper.

Keeping it in my friend’s scenario, Bono speaks about the situation itself and asks my friend to look beyond the moment, see beyond the horizontal walls pressing in and rise above the moment to see a more hopeful future. I think that that can be good advice, and I have used it, but Gary Lightbody’s lyric hits a deeper spot.

Lightbody targets my friend’s life itself and asks her to look not at a wider perspective of time beyond the moment but at a wider perspective within herself right now. She is more than this one dimension of her soul that is being oppressed. This heartache, deep and damaging as it is, is only part of who she is. Focusing on the other aspects of her life might be that which keeps her on her feet to find that happier day: -

“Then in one little moment

It all implodes

This isn't everything you are

Breathe deeply in the silence

No sudden moves

This isn't everything you are

Just take the hand that’s offered

And hold on tight

This isn't everything you are

There's joy not far from here

I know there is

This isn't everything you are.”

There is that practical advice that gives a nod to this year's 4 Corners Festival theme.  In the midst of whatever is sweeping over us there is a warning to not to do anything rash. I have used this with people in the midst of dilemmas that are straining the relationship between their head and heart. "Breathe deep... No sudden moves". Breathe in... breathe out... feel the breathe of God... find calm and ease your way through whatever it is with prayer and reflection until you find all those other more wonderful things that you are.


SURMISING THE BBC DRAMA US & JOHN LENNON'S STARTING OVER

Us TV

Janice and I have been thoroughly enjoying the BBC series Us. It is a dramatisation of David Nicholl’s book of the same name, adapted by Nicholls himself. 

A couple are coming to terms with their son going off to University. Now that he about to leave they think that they have no longer anything in common. Connie played by Saskia Reeves tells her husband Douglas played by Tom Hollander that she wants to leave him. He conjures the holiday of a lifetime with their son Albi to try and salvage something. The main focus of the holiday is Douglas’s relationship with his son which in the end does find its reconciliation.

Janice and I were a little gutted by the ending. Spoiler alert but this surmise is pointless without it. As Douglas and Connie leave a photographic exhibition of Albi’s, Douglas leaves and the series ends with him hand in hand with Freja whom he had met during the fateful holiday.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have some understanding of the dilemma. It is clear from the flashbacks in the drama that Douglas and Connie were always very different from each other. That difference can coalesce and indeed unite ranks in the bringing up of children but after that is done, there might be little left of the original relationship. 

Nicholl’s conclusion is bleak. It was thrown away too easily. Vows of "for better or for worse" were loosed too quickly. Love deserves much more of a fight.

I prefer John Lennon’s. In the same week that we were watching Us I was listening lots to Lennon as it was the week that he should have been celebrating his 80th Birthday. 

Now, Lennon gave up way too easily, in my opinion, his first marriage to Cynthia. His second marriage to Yoko wasn’t without its drama and indeed break up. Yet, in 1980 just two months before his life, marriage and fatherhood was tragically cut short by a mad murderer he released his first new song in 5 years called (Just Like) Starting Over.

220px-JustLikeStartingOver

The charts in 1980 was between punk and the new romantics. The very same day that (Just Like) Starting Over was released as a single U2’s debut record Boy hit the shelves. 

So, Lennon’s single with its echoes of Elvis and fifties rock n roll was hardly on the cutting edge of sound, proven in its initial slow climb up the charts. Yet, Double Fantasy was sentimentally subversive. In interviews of the time Lennon would talk about it as a statement to his generation, asking them how they were and looking towards the future with hopefulness. After the 60s the 70s were a let down so let us look to the 80s with a fresh energy.

 

Why don't we take off alone

Take a trip somewhere far, far away

We'll be together all alone again

Like we used to in the early days

Well, well, well darling

 

I was so struck with this verse in that it parallels Us. The song though has the ultimate hope of staying together and reinventing. 

 

Our life together

Is so precious together

We have grown, mm we have grown

Although our love still is special

Let's take a chance and fly away somewhere.

 

Janice and I are at that crossroads just now. The girls are off to University. For us that is not the end of it. It might be a page turned or a chapter writing its way into another. I like to see it as a new chapter. We are still parents. We still have children. We are committed to Fitzroy. Our love is still growing, even in the changes of life around us.

Lennon’s last single release before his death inspires me with new possibilities. It is a future with love and potency. It is precious. We have grown. I am looking forward to some travel, God willing. Let’s get started! 


U2's SONG OCTOBER FOR CORONAVIRUS TIMES

U2 Oct alt

 

The title track of U2's second album might be their first moment of controlled and crafted genius, Edge’s piano changes the band’s soundscape entirely and brings to the early catalogue a song that is sophisticated, economical and deep; Eno before Eno!

Christian hymn writers have often used few words for impact – Taize would be a good example – but it is more likely that Bono, with his lyric boos stolen and the album deadline pending, simply didn’t have the time to elaborate. However, what might be nothing more than a sketch at the time begins to feel perfectly complete as the time goes by.

October is a haunting piece that sits in the vortex of change and a change that is not a welcome. Bono often speaks of having the title first and of thinking that the hopeful spring of the sixties had given way to a colder, bleaker time in 1981.

As well as that global vortex of change the band were in their own personal vortex. Camped out with the Shalom Christian community on Portrane beach just north of Dublin, Edge and Bono were wrestling with rock stardom or not; was it compatible with the intensity of their Christian commitment. The trees were bare in their own souls and it worked its way into this piece of lament. 

Holed up in a caravan, fasting, praying and reading the Bible it was inevitable that Scripture would creep into the creative process. October is very much in the lament tradition of the Psalms or other Old Testament books, that would find their way into their next album War. October is Psalm-like while 40 on War would be an actual Psalm.

Isaiah would feature a couple of times on that follow up album too. In October’s lament comes hope; in the midst of tossed about confusion comes truth; in the midst of negative change comes the constant to be trusted in.

This song is more relevant today than it was when it was written. We live in days when the next news broadcast actually changes what we can and cannot do. Never in my lifetime have we known such uncertainty. Everything is in a state of flux. There is mental anxiety from living in isolation and the fear that we might be locked down again any minute. The economy is fragile. Jobs are being lost. Even church is strange, if meeting in the traditional way at all.

In the middle of all the fragility and fear and perhaps the danger of loss of hope  the Old Testament prophets, writers of the Psalms, and it seems U2, proclaim that God doesn’t change. The seasons do, the pandemics of history do but God... “you go on and on.”

 

“October
And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care
October
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on.”


IS JESUS PLAYING HARD TO GET? OR...

RichMullins7-19-1997

A Tweet from my friend Brendan Mulgrew, early in the week, set off a Sunday sermon thread in my imagination:

“That is a day full of bad news. Where is the light?”

That went rather well with the last sentence of the Lectionary Reading from Exodus 7: 1-7:

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

Those two phrases had me immediately hearing in my head a song by the late Rich Mullins. I was actually thrilled to find a potent reason to use Rich’s song Hard To Get in a Fitzroy sermon.

Hard To Get is I believe Rich at his most spiritually honest, vulnerable and insightful. It is also one of his cleverest lyrics and best honed songs. Not part of this blog but a blog in itself is the incredible line - “And I know it would not hurt any less/

Even if it could be explained”. Let that depth charge seep!

Sadly, we only have a poor quality version of Rich singing it, into him boom box. The late Rick Elias does a great version on the main CD of the Jesus Album. For our Fitzroy sermon I used a version by Belfast singer songwriter Andrew Patterson.

Hard To Get is a questioning of God. In fact it pushes the lines towards blasphemy as it turns almost into an interrogation. Accusing God of playing Hard To Get isn’t part of the regular diet at modern worship services! 

Rich asks Jesus who is now in heaven, radiance and eternity whether he ever thinks of us who are left on earth and in time. Has he forgotten about us because as Rich prays in the dark night of his soul Jesus seems to indeed be playing Hard To Get:

 

“You who live in radiance

Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin

We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was

Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness

Did You ever know need

Do You remember just how long a night can get?

When You were barely holding on

And Your friends fall asleep

And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted

While You're up there just playing hard to get?”

 

There is acknowledgement of the incarnation and Jesus living among us but have you forgotten us now.

I used the song as the central thread of a sermon preached in Covid-19 Times on a text about the Israelites wondering if God is still among them as they thirst in the wilderness.

Many of us might feel like those Israelites and wonder if God is with them or playing hard to get. Many of us might feel like every day is full of bad news and wonder where the light is.

Rich leads us on and then ambushes us with his final insight. A spiritual twist in the tale. He acknowledges Jesus love for him and how that love was demonstrated in the incarnation. He concludes with that twist. It is not so much Jesus playing hard to get as it is us finding it hard to get the ways of God. Powerful!

 

“And I know you bore our sorrows

And I know you feel our pain

And I know it would not hurt any less

Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out

At the One who loves me most

And after I figured this somehow

All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity

Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time

We can't see what's ahead

And we can not get free of what we've left behind

I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears

All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here

Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led

And so You've been here all along I guess

It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get"


LEAVING DAUGHTER TO UNIVERSITY - EMOTIONAL SONGS

Roadtrip

So, we have had an exciting Road Trip to leave Jasmine off to University. The Stockies have always had music on such trips. It used to be the old CD for holidays. This time it was an 8 hour playlist made up of favourites by all 4 of us and Daddy adding all the old favourites like The Sawdoctors - “get the wasp off my sandwich”! 

This mix was a whole lot more poignant and deeply emotional. 

Jasmine herself chose a Maisie Peters (she’s always teaching her dad about new artists) song called The Place We Were Made and as I listened in the tedium of an English motorway I heard loud and clear what was in her ‘leaving home’ mind:

 

I know every streetlight

And maybe the colours will fade

This is the place we were made

By the late nights and the fires on the beach

Made by the small town secrets we'd keep

All that I know is

No matter how far away

This is the place we were made

 

Indeed!

Caitlin was intentional in her choices too. She carefully picked Belfast boy Ryan McMullan’s Letting Go For A Little While. His leaving song is from the child, not the parents, point of view as no doubt he goes off on tour: 

 

I know you love me, but now it's time to let me go

And I know you're sad but please don't cry

After all it's not goodbye

We're just letting go for a little while

 

Since the release of Deacon Blue’s great new record City Of Love Janice has been loving the song Intervals, surely about such moments in the Ross/McIntosh family life, and singing loudly the lines: 

 

When you grow up to be a star

Don't leave home for anything less than you are

 

For me another of this year’s top records has been tugging my heart strings, preparing for this seismic moment in our family life in general and Jasmine’s in particular. Jason Isbell is at the very early stages of watching his child grow. Letting You Go begins with him strapping his daughter into her baby car seat. At the end of this road trip I will be unclipping Jasmine’s for a last time, in some symbolic sense. Tears were creeping when this one came up on shuffle:

 

Being your daddy comes natural

The roses just know how to grow

It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going

But the hard part is letting you go

The hard part is letting you go

 

I am a very proud father this weekend. I am so inspired by how my daughters have turned out. Nothing like the plan I had for them, they are living a far better vocational plan of their own and prayerfully God's. As Jazzi starts International Development at Reading University I am excited for her and believe she is going to make her contribution. What an adventure! What a girl! BUT still… “the hard part is letting you go”… love you baby girl!


COLDPLAY - BROKEN

BrokEn

Lord, when I'm broken (When I'm broken)

And I'm in need (I'm inneed)

Feelthat ocean (Feelthat ocean)

Swallowing me (Swallowing me)

Head ishanging (Head is hanging)

So sorrowfully (So sorrowfully)

Oh Lord (Ooh-ooh)

Come shine your light on me (Shine your light on me)

 

Coldplay’s singer and lyricist Chris Martin grew up in a Christian home and has constantly returned to that well for lyrical inspiration. He has distanced himself from that evangelical branch of Christianity and now calls himself an all-theist.

If Martin is drawing on all faiths and none in his songwriting then for sure he has gone back to his parents faith here. This lyric reminds me of a psalm or those hopeful poetic sections of the Old Testament prophets. BrokEn is like a Psalm. It is a first person prayer and praise to God. It approaches with needing asks for some light.

As I listened to the song I was drawn to some verses from Isaiah.

 

ISAIAH 60: 1-3

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,

    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

    and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the Lord rises upon you

    and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,

    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

 

There is a hopefulness in the faith of the people of God. It marks us out. Always has done. Slaves, exiles, oppressed by Empire. There is always hope of morning… of light.

The same goes for the individual pilgrim. Lost, broken, grieving. God’s light gets in.

On Coldplay’s Everyday album this Gospel sound arrives in the middle of heavy songs about serious topics. It shows that human desire to see comfort in times of need.

Listen again to BrokEn (a Reimagined version is available too). In your Lenten journey, use it as a prayer for hope… for you… for a loved one… for the world!


GRACE - BLACKIE & THE RODEO KINGS

Fearing

(my song of 2020... Stephanie Hall performed it in Fitzroy's Sunday Service on September 6th, 2020...)

There have been some wonderful songs written and released this year. My very favourite one has to be Grace. Soul Surmise readers know that that title was always going to catch my eye but this Grace is not from some Trump supporting church in California. It is theology from a slightly less likely place, though through the years I have come to the realisation that the best theology in the arts comes from places we least expect. (Check the name of one of my books)

Grace is written by Canadian (with a whole lot of Irish in him) Stephen Fearing. Stephen is a wonderful songwriter and amazing guitar player. Grace does not appear on Fearing’s stunning recent record, The Unconquerable Past, but on the latest Blackie & The Rodeo Kings album King Of This Town. 

In the album’s liner notes Fearing explains the writing of the song:

 

“’Grace’ is ‘The Water is Wide. That melody has been haunting me for years. I went back to the Sheraton where I was staying. I was sitting on the 10th floor and there was a snow storm coming in. It was just beautiful. I’m just thinking what will I bring to the table tomorrow [while] playing that progression of ‘The Water is Wide.’ I’m going ‘Okay, how can I use this?’ The how and the feeling of the song is two o’clock in the morning, sitting in the hotel room, it’s dark and the snow’s falling and that song ‘The Water is Wide.’ That’s where it comes from.”

 

Out of that simple snowy night scene, with that simple traditional tune running round his head, Fearing conjures not only the physical moment he is in but in keeping with the song dives for a spiritual pearl.

I heard the song just about two weeks into lockdown and it made the hairs on my soul stand on end. It is beautiful and in these very short verses there is so much soul food and hope.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann writes about hope:

 

“Genuine hope is not blind optimism. It is hope with open eyes, which sees the suffering and yet believes in the future.” 

 

Grace is a song that carries that entire quotation. There is no blind optimism as Fearing sings. There is a melancholic yearning, near catharsis, going on. Out of almost lament, Fearing brings in the hope. It is not big and bright but it is light and the morning will come…

 

I look for grace

When I am broken

A deep sea diver

Reaching for a pearl

One tiny light 

In all this darkness

Til the morning, til the morning

Until the morning shines upon the world.

 

I cannot tell you how much I love it!