What Wondrous Love is This? (piano improvisation by Andrew Hicks)

Andrew Hicks, who sometimes posts comments here, has a wonderful improvisation on ‘What Wondrous Love is This?’ on his YouTube channel. Here it is.

There are many more wonderful recordings on Andrew’s channel, most of them of his playing and/or the singing of the choir he directs. Why not go and have a listen? It will not only delight your heart, it will be nourishment for your soul too.

Here We Are

To celebrate Labour Day, here’s a great song written by one of Edmonton’s great musical treasures, Maria Dunn, to celebrate 100 years of the labour movement in Alberta.

Want to find out more about Maria? Her website is here. I note that she has a new CD coming out this month:

Maria Dunn’s brand new CD Piece By Piece will be available Canada-wide on September 17, 2012 at your favourite retail outlets and digital download sites. Distributed in Canada by www.outside-music.com and produced by Shannon Johnson (Juno award winner with The McDades for 2007s Bloom), the 8 songs on Piece By Piece acknowledge and celebrate the resilience and grace of immigrant women working at a Canadian clothing factory over its 93-year history.

Sounds like another great Maria Dunn CD. I’ll be getting my copy as soon as I can.

Owning up and getting comfortable

I started going to open stages about six years ago next month. For the first couple of weeks I just sat and listened while other people played and sang. Then I plucked up my courage and took a guitar along with me, and the rest, as they say, is history. Six years on, I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful community of friends I’ve developed through the Edmonton folk music community, and for the opportunity to hear great music, and play my own stuff, on a regular basis.

When I first started going out to open stages I didn’t tell a soul that I was a Christian, let alone a minister. I had this idea that I would be judged and stereotyped if people found out about my faith and my job. I don’t think my idea was altogether wrong; there are some people who just can’t see you in quite the same light after they find out that on Sunday mornings you wear a clerical collar and a robe and lead a congregation in worship. It’s all the Father Mulcahey and Elmer Gantry images and the stories about pedophile priests and so on. So, for a while, I kept quiet. I also was careful not to play any music that was clearly identifiable as ‘Christian’.

I remember when I changed my mind. We’d been going to the open stage (it was at a pub which is no longer operating on the south side of Edmonton) for I think about three or four months, when one night we had a guest visiting from New York City. He told us that he was in town for a conference about working with children (I think he worked for some sort of special needs children’s organisation), and he had come along to the pub to hear some music and maybe play some of his own. When his turn to play rolled around, he asked the host if people would be offended by hearing some bad language in his songs, and the host laughed and said, “Hey, we’re in a bar…” or words to that effect.

So this guy (I remember that his first name was Joel) got up and proceeded to sing four of the most blatantly and offensively pornographic songs I have ever heard in my life. They were not just suggestive; they were explicit descriptions, not just of sex, but of sex in which women were used and abused and objectified and so on and so on. Marci was with me that night, and she felt so sick to her stomach that she wanted to leave. As for our host, he was hard to shock, but he said to me afterwards (his head shaking), “I couldn’t believe it was actually happening – I had no idea he was going to do anything like that!”

(At one point in the twenty-minute performance Joel mentioned that he had had to take on an alias on the internet because some of the children he worked with had been finding his web site and listening to some of his songs. As one of the old guys in the bar commented, “You work with children?”)

I went home and I thought about that, and I had one of those “I will say to my soul” conversations you read about in the Psalms sometimes. I said to my soul, “Soul, you follow a master who treated women with a respect and understanding far ahead of his time – who reached out across boundaries and included the excluded in his circle of friends – who taught us to care for the poor and love our enemies and make peace. Why are you hiding this? Because you’re afraid of offending people? Joel wasn’t afraid of offending people, for crying out loud! Why should you be?”

So the next week I got up to play and I said, “Joel’s not here this week, but I want to thank him for helping me to come out of the closet. I’ve been holding back on playing any of my more overtly spiritual or Christian songs out of fear of offending people, but I figure that after last week’s performance, nobody’s going to get offended if I sing a song that mentions God or Jesus occasionally! So – here we go!”

Ever since that day, I’ve never tried to hide my faith when I’m out at open stages or gigs or chatting with my musical friends. I’m not pushy or belligerent about it, but I’m not backward about talking about it either if it seems to fit in with the conversation. I think that most people in the circle I move in know that I’m a Christian and many of them know that I’m a minister. I’ve had many wonderful, respectful conversations about spirituality and faith in which I’ve had the opportunity to express a Christian viewpoint and also to listen to other people’s viewpoints. A few people have occasionally accepted my invitation to ‘Bring a Friend’ Sundays at St. Margaret’s. As far as I know, no one in my circle (which includes atheists, agnostics, new-agers, ‘spiritual’ people, the odd Wiccan, and a few Christians) has stopped being my friend because of my faith. Some of them read my blog, and I’d be glad to be corrected if I’m wrong on that point!

I didn’t start going out to open stages as an evangelising project; I started going because I wanted to find a way to relax in the city. I wanted to play music, hear music, and make friends, and that is still my major motivation. But I also begin every day with a prayer that God would make me a blessing to the people I meet and that he would open up opportunities for me to share the good news of Jesus with others. And I’ve decided that when those opportunities come, I’m going to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and put in my two cents’ worth, with a prayer that he will use what I say to help my friends get closer to God (as I myself also want to get closer to God).

I got thinking about this because of a post over at Lesley’s place on ‘friendship evangelism‘. Lesley seems quite suspicious of the idea.

There are some churches where people are encouraged to make friends with non-Christians so that they can convert them. This is called “friendship evangelism”. At one level this might be okay – we share with our friends what is most important to us, but at another level it totally sucks – friendships are manipulated because people are seen as conversion fodder. And they eventually know it and feel slimed.

This worries me. Not that I think it describes what I do very accurately. ‘There are some churches where people are encouraged to make friends with non-Christians so that they can convert them‘. No, I didn’t make my friends with that in mind; I made friends with them because I found their music interesting and enjoyable, or because we often found ourselves sitting together at open stages. Certainly, in some cases, we’ve since had conversations about Christianity, but that was not the motivation for the friendships in the first place.

Still, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some of my friends do feel ‘slimed’ by the fact that sometimes I talk about my faith in our conversations, and (in a few cases) invite them to events at our church. If so, I hope my friends will say so in the comment section here. I can’t deny that I want to share my faith, but I’m certainly not interested in ‘sliming’ people, so if that’s what I’m doing, I want to stop.

Somehow I don’t think it is, though. Personally, I like people who know what they stand for and aren’t afraid to talk about it, especially if I can see that they are people of integrity and are good advertisements for their beliefs. If an agnostic raises questions about my faith and challenges me about some of the difficult parts, I’m not offended by that – I respect them for it and appreciate the way they prod me to think through my beliefs. I don’t assume that the entire reason they became friends with  me was to try to talk me out of my Christian faith, and I certainly don’t feel I’ve been ‘slimed’ by them. So unless I hear otherwise, I think I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing (along with everything else, it’s just plain fun!) and see what the Holy Spirit does with these friendships that I enjoy so much.

Superman’s Fallen

This is my good friend Rob Heath singing a song that we wrote together about Christopher Reeve, perhaps best known for playing Superman, but also for his brave response to the riding accident that left him a quadriplegic.

Rob has admired Christopher Reeve for some time, and a few months ago he sent me a lyric he had written in tribute to him, asking me if I could write a ‘Celtic/traditional-style’ tune for it. So the song started out as a combination of Rob’s words and my tune, but over the next few weeks he modified my tune a little, and we worked together to polish the lyrics. It was a very enjoyable process and Rob is a great songwriter to work with.

Hope you enjoy the song!

If you’d like to see more of Rob’s songs, check out his YouTube channel here.

Lent 2011 – a retrospective

This year I did something I haven’t tried before – I gave up both Facebook and blogging for Lent, and most of my blog reading too – kept only Reed Fleming‘s and Philip Yancey‘s blogs. This was far and away the most beneficial Lent discipline I have ever tried. It’s hard to adequately describe the sense of quiet and of focus that I experienced through Lent this year. I realised that Facebook has become the constant background chatter to my life, and I realised afresh just how addicted to it I am. I also realised how much of an exercise of egotism blogging is for me – how often I check back to see what the statistics are, for instance, or to see if anyone has left me comments (even though I know with my head that WordPress would have sent me an email if they had!). So it was a relief to lay all that aside and just enter into the quiet of Lent.

One benefit of all this was the amount of reading I was able to do. My ‘Books read’ sidebar tells the tale. Our church Lent book study was on John Bowen’s ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘, and Marci and I have been enjoying reading the Narnia stories together – we read five of them during Lent. I read and enjoyed Eugene Peterson’s memoir, ‘The Pastor‘, and especially enjoyed John Stott’s little book ‘The Radical Disciple‘, along with the recent biography of John by Roger Steer, ‘Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott‘. As I mentioned earlier in the year, I’ve decided to read through the entire King James Bible this year in honour of the 400th anniversary of this classic translation; I’m now in Nehemiah (as well as being almost through the psalms) and am still thoroughly enjoying it.

Speaking of reading, I bought myself a Kindle a few weeks ago. One of the attractions of doing so was the availability of so many public domain classics as free downloads (the Amazon store alone has over 5,000 of them, and many more are available from other sources). I’ve read two George MacDonald novels, ‘Thomas Wingfold, Curate‘ and ‘Paul Faber, Surgeon‘ since I got the Kindle, and am now reading a biography of Fletcher of Madeley before moving on to an Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

Another purchase during Lent was the new update of the NIV Bible (popularly but unofficially known as the ‘NIV 2011‘). I quite liked the TNIV and was sad to see that Zondervan and Biblica were pulling the plug on it, but so far I’ve been mostly quite impressed with the NIV 2011 which I’ve been using for my morning devotional readings.

Oh yes, something else I gave up for Lent was the Daily Office. It was getting very dry and stale for me, so I decided to go back to the simple old ‘quiet time‘ of my early days as a Christian. I use the Bible Reading Fellowship’s ‘New Daylight‘ Bible reading notes, so I read the chapter that the daily passage is taken from in my NIV 2011, think about it and write down some thoughts and meditations, read the New Daylight comment, and then respond in prayer in the old ‘ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)’ pattern. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this; in fact, it’s been a breath of fresh air for my prayer life, giving me a new sense of immediacy in my daily time with God.

The weather in Edmonton has truly been atrocious, with constant snowfall all through Lent and even up to the week of Palm Sunday. This has really cut down on opportunities for outdoor exercise, and I’ve felt the lack of this, but am now enjoying getting out and walking again. I haven’t done any bird watching for a long time, but hope to get back to it as spring progresses.

I’ve continued to work slowly on the recording process for my new CD. I’m using a friend’s home recording studio, and my good friend Alex Boudreau is doing the actual engineering for me. So far we have recorded fourteen guitar and voice tracks, and we plan to do three or four more. We will then listen to what we’ve got and make some decisions about adding other instruments, although I want to keep to a fairly stripped-down sound as I like the simplicity of it. Tracks we’ve recorded so far include some traditional tunes like ‘Johnny Cope’, ‘Pretty Saro’, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, and ‘Lord Franklin’, along with some of my own, including ‘The Ballad of Jake and Rachel’, ‘Watching this Town Growing Old’, and ‘I Know You Will Be There’. I’m very happy with the recordings we’ve made so far. I do plan to send this recording away to be professionally manufactured, unlike my previous efforts which were all home-burned.

There’s much else that could be said – how many different ways are there to say that I love being a grandpa? – but I think I’ll stop here, and end by saying that my experience of freedom and peace during Lent has me thinking very seriously about the role that the blogosphere and Facebook play in my life. I do not seem to be able to ‘do’ them moderately as some people can. Giving the whole thing up for six weeks was tremendously enjoyable, and I’m really questioning whether or not it’s something I should do permanently. I know I’ve tried before, and failed, but I may well give it another try, ‘The Lord being my helper’.

Catching up a bit

I don’t very often write personal news items on this blog, but every now and again I feel like doing it. This won’t be very polished and it won’t be in any particular order. Here are a few of the things that are going on in my life.

On February 1st I celebrated my eleventh anniversary as pastor of St. Margaret’s church. It seems a long time now since the Tuesday morning when I started in this parish; many people have come and gone and the congregation is very different now than it was back in the year 2000. In the last couple of years we’ve had a real influx of families with very young children, and we’re very thankful that they find our church to be a relaxed and welcoming place for them. After eleven years it’s a joy to know a congregation as well as I know this one, and to be well-known by them as well. My friend Reed Fleming has been reading a book about the benefits of stability; I concur (a fella called Eugene Peterson has been saying the same thing to pastors for quite a while now!).

We passed another significant anniversary on January 21st when our first (and, at the moment, only) grandson Noah turned one year old. He is walking all over the place now and it is a joy to watch him grow and learn. He’s a really busy boy and likes to be doing things, but every now and then I manage to catch one of his hugs, and they’re precious when they’re on offer. He likes music and playing with toy cars and walking in circles around the house, and he seems to like his Grandma and Grandpa too.

Reading-wise I’ve been slowly working my way through the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, which I’ve never read much before. I’m up to the book of Numbers now, and I read from the Psalms every day too, and am amazed at how much I’m enjoying it. I read aloud whenever I can and enjoy savouring the words in my mouth; I find the poetic language really adds to the experience. I don’t expect I’ll make the AV my main version but I will be glad to have read it through.

Marci read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and really enjoyed it; she got me into it as well and I’ve read it through once. I’m not sure if I’m going to take on a full-blown year-long happiness project as Gretchen did, but she has me convinced of a few of her central ideas – especially the idea that working on your own happiness is not a selfish thing, because happy people tend to be more generous and outgoing, and are more likely to make a positive difference to others. I also like her emphasis on doing as a road to feeling, rather than the other way around (don’t wait until you feel good before doing the right thing; do it anyway, and the feeling will probably follow along). And I like the fact that she quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson so much! Her blog is worth reading and it always gives me a lift.

Last weekend Dana Wylie and I presented a workshop which we called ‘Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music‘ at Expressionz Café here in Edmonton. About fifteen people took part, aged from early teens to early sixties, and it was a participatory experience from the start. Dana and I shared our own experiences of discovering traditional folk music, and we then raised the question ‘What is it?’ I played ‘The Cruel Brother‘ and got people to analyse what made it different from the average contemporary song; people started diving in with their ideas, and we were off to the races! After spending an hour or more on the distinctive features of traditional songs, we turned to the sources and talked about the most significant recordings, print resources, and Internet sites. We then spent a significant chunk of time on alternative guitar tunings before cruising to a close with a consideration of the history of one of the best known traditional songs, ‘Scarborough Fair’. Dana and I were gratified by the enthusiasm of the participants and it was a special joy to see so many young people there.

On the negative side, I’ve been having a few health challenges lately. Pain in my left arm took me to the doctor before Christmas; subsequent x-rays showed arthritis in the neck which was pinching nerves. There’s no real cure for this although physiotherapy helps a bit; if you see me walking in a strangely elongated fashion, that’s because apparently my relaxed slouch is not good for the neck bones! Holding your head high really is the better way! More recently I’ve been having some problems with my left eye; apparently it’s a common thing with advancing age, but the vitreous has begun to detach from the retina, and has snagged a blood vessel on the way down, so there’s a whole dirty curtain of little dots and a few blotches of blood swimming across my field of vision right now. I have perfectly clear vision if I just close my left eye!

A member of our congregation died last night. He was in his eighties and had been suffering from cancer for a couple of years (his second bout with cancer). For the past few weeks I had been taking communion to him and his wife in their home once a week, and last week when I was there he remarked about how much peace and comfort the sacrament gave him. Last night after he died the family and I gathered around his bed to read scripture and pray, and his funeral will be at our church next week. Just by virtue of being a pastor, people invite me into these significant events in their lives all the time. It’s a privilege and a trust, and I am grateful for it.

There are many other things to give thanks for. I’m happy to have been married for over thirty-one years to a wise, caring and grace-living woman who has a lot of patience for the failings of her very imperfect husband. I’m thankful that my kids seem to love their parents and each other as well, and that we see a lot more of them than some other parents I know. I’m thankful that my Mum and Dad have a computer and we can keep in touch by email and send them photographs regularly so that they feel a connection with our daily lives even though they are so far away. I’m thankful for the circle of friends who make my life so enjoyable, both near and far away, and for the chance to play music and listen to music regularly with some of those friends. I’m thankful for a worthwhile job serving a good congregation who pay me decently and treat me well and who have become my primary spiritual family. And I’m thankful to be a follower of Jesus and for the continual comfort and challenge I get from his vision of God and God’s dream for the world.