Local musician playing his songs

I’ve just found out at the last minute that I’m going to be playing a gig at the Carrot Community Arts Coffee House here in Edmonton on Friday night from 7.30 – 9.30 p.m. The Carrot is a really friendly venue, completely run by volunteers, located at 9351-118 Avenue. Apparently the Avenue is under construction right now but parking is still available close to the Carrot; see their website here for more information.

This will be a solo gig and I’ll be playing a combination of my own original songs and the traditional songs I love so much, with maybe a couple of covers thrown in for good measure. I’ve been learning a few more traditional songs lately so there may be some numbers that my usual audience will not be familiar with.

There will be a $5 cover charge at the door.

Hope to see you there!

‘Faith, Folk and Charity’

Welcome to my new blogging home here at WordPress. I’ve been wanting to move to WordPress for quite a while, partly because I like the blogging tools they offer, and partly because I don’t want to let Google have total control of my online life!

A quick word about the name of this new blog.

As some of you will know, the old Authorised (King James) Version translation of 1 Corinthians 13:13 runs ‘And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity’. My title is a slight adaptation of this verse, and brings into focus the main things I want to blog about.

‘Faith’, to me, is faith in Jesus and in the God he reveals to us. I realise that there are many other expressions of faith, religious and otherwise, but this is the faith that I try to live out in my daily life. So I will be blogging regularly about what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus, and possibly dialoguing with people of other views (there is at least one atheist on my blogroll!). I will not, however, be linking to or dialoguing with people (particularly Christians) who spend significant amounts of time on their blogs trashing people whose views they don’t like. I’m interested in discussion and dialogue, not character assassination.

‘Folk’ refers to folk music, one of the other main passions of my life. Those who know me will know that I am particularly attached to traditional folk music, the songs that have been handed down to us from previous generations, usually anonymously, and that I want to continue in my turn to hand down to the generations to come.

The word charity, in the AV of 1 Corinthians 13:13, translates the Greek word ‘agapé’, which doesn’t just mean ‘love’, but sacrificial, committed, action-oriented love, the kind of love that is expressed when a person gives their life in willing and cheerful service to another. This sort of love, Saint Paul says, is meant to be one of the ‘abiding’ characteristics of the life of a follower of Jesus.

So that’s at least part of what this blog will be about! Of course, I will also be sharing personal stories, photographs, family stuff and so on. Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you enjoy it!

Good music coming up in Edmonton this winter

The Northern Lights Folk Club has a stellar season coming up in Edmonton this year. Everyone will have their own favourites, of course, but the ones I’m especially looking forward to are Martin Simpson (Oct 2nd), Dennis Lakusta with Alannah Dow (Nov. 6th), Karla Anderson, Rob Heath, John Wort Hannam and John Mann (Jan 15th), and Lennie Gallant (April 2nd).

Check out the entire lineup at the club’s home page here. Most tickets run between $18 and $25, and season tickets are a steal at just over $200. I bought my season ticket this afternoon.

What’s in it for Me? (a sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14)

As I began my Bible study in preparation for this sermon, I was confronted with this question in the ‘Serendipity Study Bible’: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, what would you choose: Super Bowl? Rock concert? Philharmonic orchestra? Indy 500? Royal Wedding?’ For me, having recently attended the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, that was an easy question to answer: I’d like the Golden Tarp at the 2011 Festival!

For those of you who haven’t been initiated into the mysteries of the Folk Festival, seating at the main stage is rather rustic: we bring tarps and low chairs and set them up on Gallagher Hill. If you want a seat really close to the front at the main stage, you probably have to line up at about seven o’clock in the morning, and most of us don’t have the time to do that. However, there’s a way of jumping the lineup. Each year there is a raffle, and one of the prizes is the ‘Golden Tarp’ for the following year: the winner gets to be the first person on the hill every day and can put down his or her tarp wherever they want, before anyone else gets a chance!

I’ve never had a lot of success myself getting close to the main stage, but I’ve done quite well at some of the smaller stages – usually by going to them quite a bit ahead of time. Fortunately for me, no one has ever come up to me and said “Someone more important than you is here: give them your place!” With some of the more popular smaller stages, that would probably mean going an awful long way back!

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats – in other words, to people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they are going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, these folks are not actually thinking about the other people at all. Rather, their first question is always “What’s in this situation for me?” Let’s refresh our memory of the story.

Read the rest here.

A Folk Song a Day

Jon Boden has an impressive pedigree in traditional folk music, including ‘Spiers and Boden‘, ‘Bellowhead‘, and Eliza Carthy’s band ‘The Ratcatchers’. A few months ago he started a new project called ‘A Folk Song a Day‘. It’s exactly what the title says; if you subscribe to his podcast, you will receive a traditional folk song (sung by him) every day. Jon has a very fine singing voice, and many of the songs are unaccompanied; a few have a fiddle or accordion in them, but that’s about it.

I subscribed yesterday, and was able to download all the songs released in the month of August. At the end of each month, Jon seems to take the songs down and release them as a CD which you can get from iTunes and a few other places.

So far I’m really enjoying them. A few of the songs are already familiar to me, but many of them are not, and I’m finding that hearing them performed unaccompanied is a great way to put the spotlight on the song itself, rather than on anyone’s musical expertise.

If you want to try them out without subscribing to the podcast, just go to the website where all the songs for August are available in streaming audio.

All Things are Quite Silent

Today my copy of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bert Lloyd’s classic book ‘English Folk Songs‘ arrived. Trying to learn to sing and play the first song in the book, ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’, has involved learning to play in Dorian mode (it’s like playing in a minor key except the 6th note is raised a half tone). Apparently a lot of old English folk songs were in this mode. It’s not easy to set a guitar accompaniment to – and in fact Williams and Lloyd say that it’s best to sing these old folk songs unaccompanied.

After learning the song from the music in the book I found this unaccompanied version on YouTube. This singer alters the tune slightly from the version that Williams and Lloyd collected, but I think he does a great job.

I’ve heard of Dorian mode before, but before tonight I’ve never really understood it or consciously tried to sing or play in it. So thank you to these two dead guys, Bert Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who’ve given me a brand new musical experience!

Love in pastoral ministry

All through this week, in our Canadian Anglican daily prayers, we’ve been praying this prayer:

Almighty God, we are taught by your word that all our doings without love are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

It’s my habit to drive down to the church (where my office is located) just after eight each morning and begin my day by praying Morning Prayer. As I was doing so this morning, it really hit me how appropriate this prayer is for a Christian pastor about to begin his or her ‘working day’.

You see, there’s a growing tendency for Christian ministers to carry out their work in the spirit of the coffee mug message I once saw: ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’ At this time of year, my temptation is to fill up my Fall calendar with workshops and conferences and programs of every conceivable variety to meet the needs of every conceivable group of people. I do this year by year, and then wonder why I’m exhausted by the end of November, with very little sense of having accomplished anything worthwhile for the gospel and the kingdom.

‘All our doings without love are worth nothing’. If I’m so busy that I don’t have time for people, then I’m too busy. Relationships are what it’s all about – helping people build relationships with God, with each other, and with the world around them. Nowadays the world moves at such breakneck speed, and the idolatry of productivity is so powerful, that many people literally have no time for the slow, quiet conversations that are so crucial to building those relationships. Sadly, that includes conversations with God; many people feel so rushed that they just don’t seem to be able to make time for listening to God and talking with him.

Notice the language we commonly use: ‘make time’. That’s deceptive; no-one gets to ‘make time’. The time has already been made; all we get to do is choose how we will use it. And if we’re busy people and some enticing new activity comes along, the only way to ‘make time’ to do this new thing is to stop doing something that we’re already doing. Hence the cost of relationships and the cost of discipleship; you can’t add them on to a busy life. you have to stop doing something else in order to make room for them.

So what am I, as a busy pastor, prepared to ‘stop doing’ in order to make more time for loving people and building relationships with them?

Of course, there’s a vocabulary problem here too; we live in a society where the word ‘love’ is almost always a description of an emotion, and so when we hear that ‘all our doings without love are worth nothing’ we may well understand it to mean ‘If you don’t feel it from the heart, it’s worthless’. But in the Bible love is not a feeling, it’s an action – a decision to live your life to bless and serve other people, whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not, whether it’s costly or not.

This is a tall order – hence the second part of the prayer, calling on God to send his Holy Spirit to ‘pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love’. The ‘heart’, in the Bible, doesn’t mean the feelings (the Greeks thought that the bowels were the seat of the emotions, not the heart!!!). It means the whole person, especially as expressed in the choices we make, the decisions of our will. So we’re asking God to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us the strength to love other people, not just in words but in actions. As John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18).

One of my favourite pastoral authors, Dave Hansen, likes to quote a former pastor of his: ‘Do the right thing, the loving thing. People before programs. Faithfulness to Christ above all’.

Faith and Reason

Over the past few months I’ve been on a reading-fest with regard to the new atheists and the authors who have critiqued their arguments. Some of the books I’ve read have included:

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God
Francis S. Collins: The Language of God
John Cornwell: Darwin’s Angel
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion
Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell
Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution
Anthony Flew: There is a God
Sam Harris: The End of Faith
Sam Harris: Letter to a Christian Nation
Chris Hedges: When Atheism Becomes Religion
Christopher Hitchens: God is Not Great
Peter Hitchens: The Rage Against God
Bruce Sheiman: An Atheist Defends Religion

I have to say that it was rather weird, in the midst of all this reading about whether or not God exists, to see parts of the Anglican world taken up with the issue of whether or not the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church should have been required to forego the wearing of her mitre when she presided at the Eucharist and preached at Southwark Cathedral. It was actually rather refreshing to turn from the blogs of those who thought that this was an Earth-Shattering Issue to the arguments of atheists who were trying to find ways of grounding the search for human significance and a genuine sense of ethics and morality in something other than belief in God. I may have disagreed with their arguments, but at least they were arguing about something that really mattered! As I said in an earlier blog-post:

The people of the world are fascinated by Hitchens and Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris (so, at least, their book sales would lead us to believe), who are doing a pretty good job of convincing people that we are medieval ignoramuses, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our long-lost power and influence in the face of mounting scientific evidence that our faith is a delusion. Of course, the spectacle of high priests in pre-medieval ceremonial robes waving incense around altars in huge ancient stone temples wasn’t exactly helping our case before – and the fact that now the international Anglican community seems to think it’s hugely significant in the eyes of God that one of the high priests wasn’t allowed to wear a part of her weird costume is just making it worse.

Of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) I found the first two by far the best and most compelling. Hitchens is an ideologue and the subtitle of his book (‘How Religion Poisons Everything’) illustrates the fatal flaw in his approach. Now, I am quite prepared to believe that some religion poisons some things, or even that a lot of religion poisons a lot of things, but the blanket statement that ‘religion poisons everything‘ seems rather absurd to me. Everything? My wife and I have been married for over thirty years, and most of my non-Christian friends seem to think we have quite a good marriage; they don’t think that our religion has poisoned our marriage. There – I have disproved the premise of Christopher Hitchens’ subtitle – religion does not poison everything. I also found Hitchens woefully ignorant in the chapter in his book about the one thing I do know a lot about: the New Testament. I found a large number of basic factual errors in that chapter, and an almost equal number of what seem to me to be wilful misinterpretations. This did not improve my opinion of the quality of Hitchens’ research.

As for Harris, his defence of torture, and his statement that there are some ideas that are so dangerous that we should be prepared to kill people just for holding them, seemed so outrageous to me that I had difficulty taking anything else he said seriously. He has also been accused by serious students of the Middle East of being woefully (and perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the political, economic, social and religious complexities of the situation there.

It was a relief to turn from these two to Dawkins, who is a real scientist – a biologist, in fact – at the top of his game, and who really knows what he is talking about when he talks about evolution, natural selection and the whole Darwinian approach. And as long as he stuck to science, I thought he was on very firm ground. It was when he ventured into philosophy (i.e. the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’), ethics (his attempt to explain ethics and morality on the basis of Darwinism) and history (his rather naive opinion that the whole world is gradually getting better and better, from a moral point of view), that I thought he was weakest. Dennett, too, seemed to really know his stuff, and I found his book quite forceful.

Theist attempts to rebuff the new atheists tend to fall into two categories. Some (Collins, Tim Keller, Alister McGrath, Anthony Flew) debate the atheists on their own ground – rational reasons for or against the existence of God. Others (Armstrong, Eagleton) step back a little and question the hegemony of reason in the worldview of these new atheists. Armstrong in particular argues for the so-called apophatic tradition in Christianity – the view that, given the fact that God is the ground of all being and I am simply one of God’s tiny, limited, creatures, the idea that I can say anything at all about God that makes sense is rather unbelievable. God is far beyond the ability of human reason to comprehend or describe.

I found the following passage from Terry Eagleton’s book ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution’ particularly compelling:

‘The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gift. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be. Because faith is not wholly conscious, it is uncommon to abandon it simply by taking thought. Too much else would have to be altered as well. It is not usual for a lifelong conservative suddenly to become a revolutionary because a thought has struck him. This is not to say that faith is closed to evidence, as Dawkins wrongly considers, or to deny that one can come to change one’s mind about one’s beliefs. We may not choose our beliefs as we choose our starters; but this is not to say that we are just the helpless prisoners of them… Determinism is not the only alternative to voluntarism. It is just that more is involved in changing really deep-seated beliefs than just changing your mind. The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than for the sign of a certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it. Because certain of our commitments are constitutive of who we are, we cannot alter them without what Christianity traditionally calls a conversion, which involves a lot more than just swapping one opinion for another. This is one reason why other people’s faith can look like plain irrationalism, which indeed it sometimes is’.

This rings true with my experience. Why am I a Christian? There are all sorts of reasons, only some of them rational. But then, why am I married to Marci? Did I sit down, write down a list of the arguments in favour of marrying her and the arguments against? Do I sit down on our wedding anniversary every year, update the list, and then make a decision about whether or not my faith in her and love for her is still valid? Of course not. That whole (central) part of my life is based on entirely non-rational factors. The same is true for my love for traditional folk music, or my preference for the sound of acoustic over electric guitars. I suspect, in fact, that many of the areas of our lives that make us the most human may also be the areas that are least susceptible to the hegemony of reason.
There are some huge questions which theism has traditionally addressed, and although I think the arguments of the new atheists have exposed some holes in the traditional Christian answers, I have yet to see what I regard as a convincing atheist answer to these questions. They include,
  • Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why does the universe seem to be intentionally designed in such a way as to favour the emergence of beings like us (and please, Professor Dawkins – the ‘multiverse’ is at least as irrational an idea as belief in God!)?
  • What is consciousness, and where does it come from?
  • What is evil and why does it exist?
  • Why aren’t right and wrong just a matter of opinion? What is the ground of an objective system of morality (one that we can appeal to, for instance, on issues of human rights)? How do we make responsible ethical decisions in a way that goes beyond opinion-polls and personal preference?
  • Why has humanity, historically, found materialism such an unconvincing and unsatisfying answer to human existence?
  • Why is my life significant in any way that will survive my death?
  • How can I be the sort of person I want to be? Why, so often, is a sense of failure the dominant human condition?
To me, these are some of the big questions of human existence. I find some of the traditional theist/Christian answers to these questions rather shallow and unconvincing, but I’ve yet to see what I regard as adequate atheist alternatives. And so the reading and thinking continues…

Nic Jones: ‘The Warlike Lads of Russia’

This is a fine track from Nic’s double CD set ‘Unearthed’, a collection of live recordings. If you like it, please buy the CD from Nic’s website here. Nic was terribly injured in a car accident in 1982 and has been unable to perform ever since, and I’m guessing he’s not very rich. Also, a certain less than ethical record company owns the copyright on his first four albums and Nic has not received a penny from them since that company bought up his catalogue. The only recordings Nic receives money from are ‘Penguin Eggs’ and the other recordings advertised on his web site here.

Nic Jones : ‘CLYDE WATER’

This is a very fine live version of ‘Clyde Water’ by the great Nic Jones (he later recorded it on his classic album ‘Penguin Eggs’ under the name ‘The Drowned Lovers’, but this live version, found on the CD ‘Game, Set, and Match‘, is far superior, in my view). Many others have recorded versions of this song, including Kate Rusby and Martin Carthy; other versions of the lyrics can be foundhere, here, here, and here. I’m currently making my own arrangement of this song, using Nic’s version as my basic source.

Unfortunately this is audio only; I have not been able to find any surviving movie footage of Nic Jones’ performances. Information about Nic (and the reason he stopped performing in 1982) can be found at Wikipedia here and at his own website here