Revisiting Old Places, or Lessons From My Music Collection

I’ve just finished. A self-satisfied glow of smugness arranges itself all over my aura. I burst over the finish line with a flurry of productivity and the appropriate adrenaline rush of satisfaction at a target reached.

It wasn’t quite like that, truth be told.

Just over a year ago I, for reasons I won’t bore you with, managed to delete my entire music collection from my computer. If you played every song back-to-back without break that would be about 16 days’ worth of aural accompaniment.

Fear not, dear reader, for I rescued the situation. In the process of doing so I discovered all sorts of music I’d forgotten I owned.

I became aware that my listening habits had shrunk to the most recently purchased.

So I Had An Idea.

I decided I’d listen to it.

All of it.

In what order?

A to Z, by album title seemed the way to go. I’d include single songs; but not any recorded worship music of the type you sing in some churches as, frankly, I don’t enjoy it enough to do that to myself. I’d also omit compilation albums I’d got free with magazines. This was for the simple reason that I’ve got about a gazillion of those so I figured that if this was to be realistic I needed to make that decision. I also skipped on anything you may term ‘classical’ music for the entirely fair reason that I don’t own any.

I pompously developed my own social media hashtag for the purpose and format for the tweets relating that to which I was listening at any given time. Thus:

achtung baby – u2 #atozalbums

All lower case was important.

Like I said it’s only taken a year or so; confused by what I do with new music bought which by the alphabetical format should have come earlier in the project. All sorts of similar problems presented themselves. On I struggled, making up the rules as I went along. My game, my rules.

At the end of the project I’m now considering what I could do next – with music, with movies, with … anything I enjoy, really. All suggestions welcome.

While I’m here, a selection (in no special order) of Very Important Life Lessons I’ve gleaned from this.

1) I still don’t feel a vast need to get into ‘classical’ music. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just not my thing, really. I speak other musical languages. No, I’m not a philistine. If you really think this makes me culturally ignorant or stupid then let’s have a conversation about Shakespeare or the Victorian novel or Marlowe or Donne or Coupland or Milton and see if you still hold that opinion at the end.

2) I was strangely reminded of all the music I’d given away/thrown away/sold/lost over the years. The first CD I bought was the soundtrack to Back To The Future. I have no idea where that is now, and I didn’t put it on my laptop at any stage. Then there’s some Prince albums. Where have they gone?

3) Even some music that I might be slightly embarrassed to admit to owning I still quite enjoy. All Saints, I’m thinking of you. Among others.

4) If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d be into some of the hip-hop or folk I now like then I’d never have believed you.

5) As with ‘classical’ music (see point 1) so with other greats like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones and so many others. I can recognise greatness but still not enjoy it enough to buy it or listen to it often. Enjoying something and acknowledging greatness are two very different things and that’s OK with me. There’s some ‘holes’ in my collection I have no intention of filling.

6) I really enjoyed this. So what else, in the dark recesses of my own soul, might I have forgotten I enjoy but pushed down to give attention to the new and the urgent and the demanding? Acting. There’s one I really need to give some thought to. Silent prayer is another.

7) As with point 3, there may be some stuff in me I’m faintly embarrassed by but actually that’s OK too. I don’t have to impress anyone with what I’m into as long as it’s not damaging me or another person.

8) Why is ‘Christian music’ SO unimaginative? Why do these bands keep impersonating U2 and Coldplay? I like those 2 bands quite a lot, but I also like Kanye West and R.E.M. and Radiohead and Faithless and Manic Street Preachers and so much more. So … you know, don’t get stuck! Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins puts it really well in this short little clip.

9) Doing this bought back some fantastic memories of when I first heard certain albums (e.g. I stopped everything I was doing when I first heard Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’,  lay on the bed and cried at the beauty of it), or gigs I went to (e.g. Radiohead again, the guy in front of us threatening to punch me and my mate Mark for jumping up and down).

10) Here’s one for you. Try something similar. It needn’t be music, it needn’t be art at all. You don’t have to blog it, tweet it, Facebook it if you don’t want to go public. Find some old books, pull out that box of letters and mementoes, have a read of something you wrote years ago, randomly look at old emails. Anything, really. How have you changed since then? In what ways are you the same? How do you respond to this now that is different to how you responded then? Are you ashamed of or embarrassed by something you have no need to be that way about? Do you need some help to think something through?

As if to prove I’m no philistine, I’ll end with some T.S. Eliot that’s haunted throughout this musical journey:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”  

(T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, the last of his ‘4 Quartets’)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 18th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the eleventh of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 130. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Over the years I’ve taken a number of personality profile tests. You’ll know them. I don’t mean the sort of things you find in the back of magazines; I mean the ones which take your answers to a set of questions and give you a number, a colour, a shape, a series of letters or some such thing to sum you up. They can be of immense value, but they can also be immensely damaging. They are valuable if they give you space to grow into, help you to change and grow and develop and put time and energy into things which actually work. I’ve also seen them used as excuses for not doing things, as tools to bully people with, as a vehicle for saying ‘This is what God says about you’. When that happens it never ends well.

Where these have helped me has been to understand why some things suck the life out of me and the sorts of things I really should get some help with. Planning is one of these – I am not a systematic person. I find it very hard to break things down into logical, achievable steps. So in work and life, that’s something I need help with. That’s something other people at church help me do; it’s what my wife is very good at. When that works well it’s a life-giving synergy for all of us. Knowing strengths and weaknesses like makes life a lot more bearable.

Psalm 130 is one which shows us that it’s good to know who we’re shaped to be  – and that planning isn’t always the best thing.  That starts in the first two verses with the stark reminder that we can’t plan our way around the ultimate statistic.

Death is real and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can put it off, we can pretend it doesn’t exist, we can hasten our journey towards it – but we can’t do anything about the reality. The Bible’s full of mediations on death; and that’s the language unavoidably used of our status without God. As long as we hold out on God, as long as we keep Him at arm’s length and pretend we don’t need Him, as long as we act as if He doesn’t exist or refuse Him, we are the living dead – physically sentient, dead in every other respect. One rebelled – we all rebel – and death is the logical next step of all who turn their back on life.  The first two verses of this Psalm are the cry of someone who knows she’s dead without God; she’s in a mess of her own making and can bring nothing to her situation apart from a shovel to dig herself deeper. Like Jonah, she’s in a pit and all she can do is ask for help. We don’t like moments like this; we want, instinctively, to wrap arms around someone in deep pain, in desperation, on whom the world is caving in and tell them it’s ok. There’s something they can do. It will get better. Only it may not, and they may be able to do nothing. It’s at these points that, if we sit in the dust long enough without offering solutions we can find the hand of God extended. The point of desperation is the very place we often need to find ourselves to discover the mountain-shifting power of the Earth Maker.

We can’t plan our way around death – and neither can we plan our way back into life either.

I once spent some time with a man whose marriage was collapsing. As always there was fault on both sides; he described to me how it felt as if every time he got something wrong, put a foot out of line his then wife wrote it down in a big leather-bound book, a ledger of wrongs done. There was nothing he could do; as quickly as he made amends for one, another was written down. That’s a familiar dynamic  because we all do it – for others, for ourselves. We find it very hard to forget. Many of us take the next step and project that onto God – we do it, so He must too. The Psalm-writer acknowledges that reality – verses 3 and 4 speak of the impossibility of standing before a God who would do such a thing. It turns out, much to our surprise, that God is not like this. One man lived and died well; if we accept that, live in that reality, then it’s counted for us. There’s no ledger of wrongs; just a Book of Life. Forgiveness is this God’s speciality. It can’t be planned by the recipient; a truth gloriously offensive to the recipient.

Death and new life can’t be planned out of or into. Neither can God’s great project; or rather, He can and we can’t. Those who have received life from the Giver are alive but surrounded by death, in the dark but holding an oil lamp. We can’t plan the coming dawn, but we can get on with what’s in front of us. That’s how the second half of Psalm 130 pictures the situation. I used to work night shifts in a hostel for young people who were homeless. 10 p.m. – 8:30 a.m. could crawl by. So I filled the time with the work I was given to do – keep an eye on the hostel and residents; clean; administration; feeding myself physically and spiritually; talking with those who couldn’t sleep; dealing with unpredictable incidents which arose. If I didn’t keep reminding myself that 8:30 was coming I could despair. So much to do, so much need. Morning would come, though, and others would pick up what was left. Or conversely the time would creep by if I didn’t fill it with what I was there to do.

I can’t plan, but I’ve learned I can write and speak in public. I can bring vision, others can bring the steps to get there. That’s my lamp. I choose to light it in the presence of one who can make it burn brighter or longer than I can dream of.

That’s what it means to wait for the morning – to get on, to do your job safe in the knowledge that dawn will come whether you work or not. So you might as well do what you’re there for. The world is dark, but we all have things to do; we all have lamps to light, illumination to bring. The catch is we don’t know when the dawn is coming. But is coming. So when it comes, will your lamp be ready to welcome it?

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

 

“Everybody knows … “: Men, women and the deep dangers of universally accepted truth

Everybody knows that men are obsessed with sex. Our predominant temptation is lust. The danger of being sucked into a dangerously coercive relationship with pornography lies around every corner or click. I must train my eyes and constantly monitor the film on repeat play in my head. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Sex is used to sell to men and to women (because what’s being sold will make them more sexually capable or desirable or both); men think about sex every seven seconds. Pull that last often-quoted statistic out in the company of any group containing men (or women, for that matter) and someone will inevitably reply … ‘What about the other six seconds?‘ Laughter, knowing nods and smiles. Men and women alike now Understand Something about themselves and each other.

It’s true.

Only it isn’t. It’s utter nonsense. It’s a fabricated myth spun around a kernel of half-truth with the status of near-divine revelation.

It’s a myth-as-fact proclaimed implicitly from magazine covers and advertisements, from preachers and counsellors. I’ve heard sermons based around it; I’ve experienced marriage preparation use it as a foundation for the evening spent discussing intimacy; I’ve been told – repeatedly –  it’s how I function; I’ve heard it said that my wife must understand this if we’re to have a fulfilling and intimate marriage.

I do not think about sex every seven seconds. I don’t even think about sex every week. I’ve never really had a problem with lust; I am not an especially visually stimulated man. What more often stimulates me are kindnesses, time spent, words uttered. I love my wife deeply and truly and am attracted to her and desire her. That waxes and wanes as it does in all relationships, but after 14 years of marriage I know that our intimacy is far deeper and truer than simply what we do with each other’s bodies.

Sometimes I think about sex but can’t act on it because I experience chronic arthritic pain. More often I experience chronic arthritic pain so I won’t even contemplate sex or pretty much any sort of movement. Sometimes I just don’t think about sex because I’ve got plenty of other really interesting things to think about like work or a conversation with my wife or a movie or the dog to walk or the house move or the emails I need to send or the food I’m cooking or just about any of the other fascinating, thrilling, disturbing, inconvenient things which make up my life.

What am I to think, then? Am I not a proper man? Am I lying to myself? Am I pretending I will never sin sexually? Am I a deviant?

No.

Imagine my relief at stumbling across something resembling actual proof that I am approaching normal. I like busting myths; I like discovering something assumed to be true isn’t. It brings a special kind of freedom. Experience plus the article you can read if you click here leads me to a confident conclusion that there’s little to back up this particular ‘fact’. As the article states, the Kinsey Institute’s research suggests that around 43% of men think about sex a few times a month. That’s a lot of men not thinking about sex a lot of the time.

Not quite every seven seconds, is it?

Now this report and article isn’t definitive; and to be clear I’m not ever suggesting I won’t fall into sexual sin, because I’m human and I may. I’m not suggesting I won’t ever find lust a problem, because I may find myself there. I’m not suggesting that every man who says he does have a problem of this nature is lying, because he may well do so. However my experience, my private conversations and what I’ve read suggest a deeper truth.

The truth is this. We have bought a lie, sold ourselves into captivity. We are liberated prisoners running back to prison. We do it as individuals, as preachers, as churches, as citizens, as partners. We do it as consumers and protestors. We do it in relation to sex, work, emotions, thoughts and almost anything we can relate consciously or sub-consciously to our identity as a man or a woman.

The truth is that we will accept definitions of what it means to be men or women so that we can fit in, not stand out, get help and be accepted into the group. We will do so to the extent of agreeing that we have a problem with something even if we don’t. I know because I’ve done that; I’ve nodded sagely at the preacher saying ‘All of us men here tonight have struggles with lust’. I’ve asked people to pray about it with me, totally convinced myself of having a problem that needs to be addressed.

I’ve done it, and other men have told me they’ve done similar. It makes you feel accepted by the church, you’re proclaimed as honest and down-to-earth and ‘real’. Because that’s what real men are like.

Best-selling Christian and non-Christian books alike proclaim this and so many more ‘facts’ about men and women as to leave you buffeted into submission. Men are this way, so this is how your church should be; men want to rescue and women want to be rescued (there’s even a course you can do). Men’s weekends away are full of outdoor activities and outdoor food, women’s with crafts and women’s food (yes, really). The often italicised caveat is that not all men or women are alike; it’s so brief you miss it in a blink and forget you even read it because actually saying that won’t sell, won’t get applause or laughs or money in the bank.

Men and women are different. Of course they are. Try to generalise that, apply it broadly and you end up with all manner of problems. What matters to me is not what all women are like; it’s what the woman I share my life with is like. What matters to me is not what all men enjoy, but what will bring life and hope to me or to the man I’m trying to understand. What matters is the person in the moment with me.

The wisdom of the lives of other men or women will help me. It will not define the other, though. It may shed some light, it may grant a glimpse of insight; but each unique creation is as spectacularly, gloriously different as the other. Men and women were not made to fit a shape; we were made to explore a creation, to bear the image of the eternal, to be saved by One bleeding and dying and rising to give us abundant lives, who said we could do greater things than He.

We will have problems and brokenness, fear and failure; we will sink into sin and messes of our own making. They are ours, though. They are unique to me and you; I may gain help or comfort or encouragement from a shared struggle. Or I may not.

However I do not walk alone. Which is enough.

Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.  (Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 10: Grow, shrink, expand, repeat (Psalm 129)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday August 11th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the tenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 129. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Confidence comes from survival. We are tempted to associate confidence with achieving a goal, reaching a target, making something happen. Psalm 129 is the song of someone who’s confident because they’ve survived. What’s more, it’s not down to the singer. All the singer has contributed to surviving is drawing breath. Sometimes that’s an achievement in itself.

The confidence starts by looking back – at what has been, the agonies of times past, of survival and liberation, of release from immense suffering. It’s a retrospective called out of the singer in the midst of worship – the repeated call and response of verse 1 suggesting that like Psalm 124 this was probably used in corporate worship. The leader starts and invites the gathered to join in agreement and shared experience. Worship should always do this – whether it’s silence or said liturgy or high liturgy or rock band led or organ led matters not. What it should invoke is shared experiences, positive and painful together, gathered, held and presented to God as an offering. In this case it’s the deeply painful.

The specifics of what happened are not given here; they’re alluded to in an image at once absurd and distressing. It’s of the tortured prisoner, bound and stripped to the waist, back exposed to the heat of midday sun, whips recently furrowed the skin, exposing ribbons of flesh like a newly ploughed field (v3). The history of God’s people is replete with persecution and oppression; the specifics of this don’t matter to us now. The alluded effect of it leaves us in no doubt as to the trauma.

It is not the end of the story, though. Such suffering, startling and violent as it was, is simply the content of the parentheses. The defining truth isn’t the suffering, it’s the glorious brackets of verses 2 and 4, keeping suffering in its place. God intervened, bought it to an end, put it in its place. He cut the cords – depending on how you translate verse 4, it’s either the cords of captivity or the cords that yoked oxen to the plough – leaving the opposition absurdly impotent. The captive is free and standing, the plough uselessly stationary in the field, oxen trotting harmlessly off into the distance.

So the looking back is finished in verse 4. Into the second half of the psalm, and we’re into the present day. The look back to God’s past liberation gives confidence and faith to today’s perseverance. The one oppressed seeks the same useless humiliation for current oppressors as past experienced. May the whip cord be ripped from their grasp; may the plough be severed from the beasts of burden. If healthy crops are a sign of God’s blessing, may those who torture have no chance of being seen as successful. May their crops of suffering fail as uselessly as the frail shoots which sprang up from the thin layer of earth in the organic roofs of the houses of the day. Thin soil gives no harvest; the oppressor of those who belong to God will see no long-term fruit. May they know that.

The prayer of God’s people should be that of blessing and growth – for the things of God. Shrinkage is not from Him, unless it’s the shrinkage of evil. Pray for evil to shrink, to fail, to wither; for people, even the perpetrators,  to move from lives of shrinkage to experience the wide-open growth spaces of God’s kingdom. The trick is not to co-operate with the shrinkage. We may not think we do … but do we? We are prone to do so, drawn to it as moth to flame. We scent a smelly body and shrink the inhabitant to street-dwelling drug-abuser; we see a shivering but scantily clad woman on street corner and shrink her identity to that of seller of sex; we see a man or woman and shrink him or her to the definition of how we have known some of that gender in the past. We see a potential or current disciple and shrink them to too traditional, too alternative, too successful, too poor, too gay, too other to be of any potential, use or worthy of dedicated attention.

We all do it. We are called to pray for and actively grow in blessing, shrink in evil, expand our view of those around and teach others to do so … repeating a virtuous cycle in us and others until a new creation of glorious wide-open space is established in our midst.

If you’ve only lived in a cell you’ll naturally be scared of the open air. You’ll hug the wall, shield your eyes from the sun, maybe even try to dash back inside. That’s alright. There’s plenty of time. The door remains open – you must simply walk through it.

 This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th August 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full script.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)