Amazing Grace

‘Amazing Grace’ was written by John Newton in 1772 and was first published in 1779 in a collection called ‘Olney Hymns’ in which all the lyrics were by either Newton or the poet William Cowper. We have no idea what tune was originally sung to this hymn.

‘Amazing Grace’ became very popular in 19th century America and it was there that it was first sung to the American folk tune we now associate with it.

Interestingly, Newton’s original final verse was different from the ‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years’ verse that we now sing. The substitution was made by an American editor, who replaced the original (which he apparently felt was too Calvinistic?) with the words now familiar to us. The difference is easily noticeable in that Newton’s original verses are all in the first person singular, while the new verse is in the plural.

I have written my own tune to ‘Amazing Grace’, and have chosen to sing Newton’s original words, not the later American edition.

‘The Power of Your Love’ instrumental

This is my instrumental arrangement of the well-known worship song ‘The Power of Your love’, by Geoff Bullock.

The guitar tuning is CGCGCD. I created this instrumental almost accidentally; I’d been leading the song at a Facebook Live streamed worship service (strumming, in standard tuning), but when I got home my other guitar was tuned to open C and I began ‘noodling’ with it. The result was this instrumental. Hope you enjoy it!

The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying

One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.

But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.

One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.

Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.

If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.

It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.

So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!

My Coronatide Thanksgiving List

We’re all well aware of the hardships people are going through right now, and the restrictions placed on us in the effort to keep as many people as possible safe. But this morning I don’t want to add to the laments; I want to list some of the things I’m thankful for during this challenging time. In no particular order, here they are.

I’m thankful that I don’t live alone—that I live with the woman I love, and she loves me, and we seem to be able to live in the same house without losing patience with each other.

I’m thankful that I’m relatively healthy, able to do my work and enjoy the simple pleasures I love—reading and writing, walking, bird watching, playing and listening to music, and keeping in touch with family and friends online.

I’m thankful that I see my children and grandchildren regularly—either in person with appropriate social distancing), or through the wonders of modern technology—and that they reach out to each other as well. We’re a together kind of family and we still seem to be together through all of this. I can also talk to my Mum in the UK on a regular basis, on FaceTime or on the phone.

And speaking of the wonders of modern technology, right now I’d be sunk without it, so I’m very thankful for it. It enables me to stay in touch with friends far and wide, to see their faces when we chat, and it also enables our St. Margaret’s family to stay together and to carry on with much of our life while we can’t meet physically.

I’m especially thankful that my brother and I are able to chat regularly on FaceTime—something we’ve been able to do for a long time, but somehow haven’t done a lot of until this virus came along. I’m also grateful for the video chats I’ve had with friends in different places around the world, people I’ve been in touch with for a long time but somehow never thought before of talking face to face via video technology.

I’m more thankful than I can possibly express for the group of praying people, from St. Margaret’s and beyond, who have formed around our daily Facebook services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer. In April an average of 12 each morning and 17 each night have been coming together to pray in this way. I’m grateful for Susan Ormsbee who shares in the leadership of these daily services with me. They are truly the great sheet anchor of my day, keeping me close to God and to fellow Christians.

I’m grateful to all the amazing people in my parish of St. Margaret’s, Edmonton, who appear to have made a collective decision not to let this thing beat us, but to do all we can to be a strong and vibrant community of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. For those who join us in Sunday worship online—for those who have looked after our church building through basement floods—for the grounds team who have now begun their work of keeping the property looking beautiful and loved—for our churchwardens and treasurer and the leadership they provide—for those who have been contacting people on our parish list by phone and computer to make sure everyone is okay and keep our community together—for my amazing admin assistant Lori who goes above and beyond the call of duty again and again and somehow manages to do it all in six hours a week (so she says!!!)—for those who gather for our midweek Bible study groups on Zoom—for other little virtual gatherings that take place—for the incredible generosity of our members (our April envelope offerings were above budget, even though a few people have had to cut back)—for the many people who have sent me thank-you emails for the online services and other things we do—for the very special parishioners who make a point of reaching out to me to make sure I’m doing okay (you know who you are).

I’m also grateful for my clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Edmonton, who inspire me by their willingness to be stretched, to learn new ways of doing things, and to go the second mile, and the third, and the twenty-third—really, to do all they can to continue to lead and care for their parish communities. Sisters and brothers, you are truly awesome. And so are you, Bishop Jane!

I’m grateful for the worldwide music community, for all the people who have been doing online concerts on Facebook to keep in touch with their fans—for being able to sit in my living room last Wednesday and listen to Matthew Byrne, one of my favourite traditional folk singers, coming to us from his living room in Newfoundland—and for the local musicians who have been posting videos of their favourite songs in and effort to reach out and encourage each other.

I’m grateful for good books to read, nourishing books, written by authors with worthwhile things to say. I love reading and I’m so glad I can enjoy it in this difficult time. I’m also grateful for people like Jennifer Ehle, who has been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ aloud on social media, and Patrick Stewart who has been reading one of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day!

And speaking of social media, yes, Facebook and Twitter have their dark side (and I’ve blocked and un-followed a lot of sites these last few weeks), but I have to say I’ve also experienced a whole lot of love and inspiration from the people I meet there since this pandemic began to change our lives. Thank you all!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I want to finish by saying that although this has been a stressful time (and I’ve been feeling the symptoms of stress in my body), it’s also been a timer when I’ve been very much aware of God’s presence. The psalms refer to God as ‘our Rock’ in times of trouble, and I am definitely experiencing God like that, especially through our daily Morning Prayer and Night Prayer services. I leave them each day with a sense of being grounded, of deep peace, and of the closeness of God in my heart and the hearts of those I’ve prayed with.

So yes—lots of stress, lots of challenges, lots of sadness, but also many, many things to be thankful for.

Things I’d like to tell the 1978 version of me

I wrote this two years ago on the 40th anniversary of my commissioning, the day I began full time ministry. I think it still stands.

Things I’d like to tell (or remind) my ‘forty years ago’ self.

  1. God loves you. You can believe that.
  2. Praying is important
  3. Loving is equally important.
  4. Never rain on someone’s enthusiasm for Jesus
  5. This is not about career advancement or comfortable jobs, it’s about sharing the Gospel
  6. Decide what’s important and do your best not to get distracted by what’s not important
  7. God is real. We forget this sometimes, and then we think we have to do God’s job.
  8. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is going to change that (thank you, Philip Yancey).

That’ll do for now.