In Memoriam: John Taylor

Being a theologically-conservative Seventh-Day Adventist and jazz musician has been the hardest thing – but it has also been a wonderful experience. Before I get to John Taylor, I think I’m going to go back to the beginning.

~

Sometime in the 1990’s there was an album released called The Glory of Gershwin – and a South Bank Show was made as a sort-of-documentary about it. A wide variety of artists were involved. Sinead O’Connor. Larry Adler.

And a young British saxophonist called Courtney Pine, playing an instrument that up to then I had only ever seen in books – a soprano saxophone. I fell in love – head over heels.

There’s more to this story, but I can’t digress. I went to my local library and checked out every single Courtney Pine album that I could find. And one piano player jumped out at me: Julian Joseph.

Nothing was the same after that. And so I am one of those British jazz musicians who plays jazz because of British jazz musicians. Later on, I would get to know what was at that time the only SDA professional jazz musician – Norman Clarke. I still have memories of Norman casually playing Donna Lee in F# in his house one night upon request (he told me that he’d learned the tune in all twelve keys, and when I asked him to show me in F#, he delivered. That’s the highest level of integrity I’ve seen from any British Adventist musician).

But full-time music and Sabbath-keeping don’t go together well financially, so Norman chose another path. But I wanted to try, and so I did – and he’s part of the reason why.

Jason Rebello had so much more to offer than the one amazing solo on Summertime that made him an international name overnight. He knew things on more levels than most musicians, and he was the first jazz piano teacher to actually scare me. It’s taken me a long time to absorb some of the advice he gave me, but that’s another conversation, and I will always be grateful to him for telling me the truth.

But before Jason, I spent a little time with the late Michael Garrick, who was a much better teacher than some have understood. He was gentle with me. And now that he’s no longer with us, I occasionally look at some of the notes he wrote for me and remember. He helped me believe that I could do something.

I’ve never had a lesson with Julian Joseph, but he would definitely have kicked my behind in a similar way to Jason. He knew that I had language issues and told me as such, but Julian was the first person to talk about the actual sound that I got out of the piano. [And that touch and concept do indeed remain some of the strongest parts of my playing.] But I’ve been privileged to watch Julian play on many occasions, and it has ALWAYS been an education. I owe him and the family a great deal.

Keith Tippett must also be acknowledged – I did seven years straight at Dartington and his jazz course was part of that. His entire oeuvre has been under-rated for many years but it is amazing to see the resurgence in his career. My first MA thesis was on his contribution to the European free-improvisation scene, and his support and encouragement of my (at times wildly-idiosyncratic) playing was massively important – at times, he would have been the only one who understood what I was trying to do as an improvising pianist.

I’m not sure how happy I feel about mentioning this, but I did have a few lessons with a jazz pianist and educator whom I regard extremely highly, but who saw the worst of me in that I was going through major life-crises when I was trying to learn from him, and as such, I was a quite terrible student. History would have been very different if I’d been disciplined enough to learn from him for long enough to get good. His name: Pete Churchill.

And how could I leave out Robert Mitchell, who taught and mentored me in a most unconventional way when I was at Kingston University (where I was also encouraged by Charlie Beale, who should be mentioned in the interests of fairness and integrity) and with whom I’ve been privileged to share solo piano events with, and whose music I’ve appreciated in so many ways?! Robert did one concert on January 5th, 2005 that may have been the biggest reason for me to not give up piano playing for good – that was the day when I realised, listening to him playing, how much this music meant to me, and how much I wanted to still play.

~

Some wonderful musicians are named above and yet, the jazz pianist that I would most like to emulate is John Taylor – with whom I had the privilege of being mentored for a number of very intense sessions back in 2011. It is amazing what one realises in hindsight. Even as I write this blog post, I realise that all my experiences prior to spending time with John helped me to understand what he had to offer me. John offered support and criticism in ways that related to that which I had received from others, but was also qualitatively different. He was both confused and respectful of my religious approach to this music, and offered some warnings which have been proven to be more accurate than I could ever have imagined. But this was not to dissuade me against my faith. It was to make me REALLY think about the enormity of the challenge that sacred jazz was going to pose to me – and up until then, I had not faced some of those questions.

John questioned EVERYTHING.

Everything.

Everything.

It was humbling. It was terrifying.

And then, one day, he picked up one of my own arrangements  and sat down to show me something that I wish I had recorded, but maybe it was not something to be recorded. It was a bonding moment – he played my own harmony and rhythms, and then did a cascading solo that burned a hole in my heart and mind – THAT was what I wanted to achieve, and the only two people who heard it were me, him and the wildlife outside the window of his home in Kent…

My life changed, right there.

But then we both knew that I was aspiring to something that was very, very far beyond my natural resources. And he told me stories and explained certain things about his career – about the influence of Kenny Wheeler on his work – and he showed me mind-boggling things that literally hurt my head to kingdom come and back. The sheer level of intellect that man possessed was surpassed by his non-religious spirituality. He was very strongly opposed to religion, so to have a mentee who wanted to play ‘sacred jazz’ was not going to be an easy experience. But it was the best experience.

*sidelight:* One of the best memories of my late sister was when I persuaded her to come with me to his solo gig at the old Vortex in 2002. Jazz was one the biggest things that she and I shared away from our parents, who had been raised to see jazz as the devil’s music and found it incredibly hard that their only son had become a jazz musician. She had originally seen things the same way, but as time passed, she had understood things differently. That night, John was monumentally inspired. As she said afterwards, “he was so good it was actually shocking…”

At the end of our time together, John gave me some stern advice before telling me in no uncertain terms how much he believed in me. That has meant more to me than I can say. John knew that the forms of contemporary sacred music would not be enough for the level of jazz artistry that I aspired towards, and four years later I know he was right. I will have to find new language and new understanding to write what is deep in my heart, but his music and that of Kenny Wheeler now needs to become even more of a priority for me as I seek to make sense out of how I am going to find my best level of improvising piano that combines the visceral power of my free-improv inclinations, the spiritual weight and force of my gospel concept, the multifarious assimilations of my understanding of modern jazz along with the world and folk traditions in my head and fingers to find something that is going to be several years in the making.

I had hoped to make him proud, but he won’t be here. However, the best thing I can do is honour his memory, and I am DETERMINED to do this – and to the glory of the God in whom I believe. Artists like him are exceptionally rare, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be touched by his life.

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A suggestion from Socrates…

Well, it is great to be back in the land of blog – the past few months have been quite insane, but God is good and I am still alive and breathing. This post is written for a very good friend who asked me a recent question on facebook in response to something I had written.

That ‘something’ was in fact a ‘status update’ that read thus:

Heads-up to all those serious about self-discovery: don’t start the journey if you’re not ready to live with the fact that you may not like some of what you discover…

I can tell you quite categorically that as we come towards the end of 2011, I am not the same human being who began the year. Well, on one hand I am. However, at the same time, I am not. I’m really not. And a major part of this has come about through circumstances allowed and indeed ordained by God Himself which have been expressly set up to bring me to the most serious position of self-awareness that I have ever possessed.

The price has been monstrous. I have a completely new level of sympathy for those who run away from self-discovery on a truly genuine level. But I would still not encourage anyone to do anything other than go on that journey for themselves.

It was with no small measure of déjà-vu that I came across this article from Scientific American recently; check it out for yourself:

We humans are introspective. We observe patterns of our own behavior and we have memories for review. So you probably think you know yourself pretty well, right?

Not so fast. In fact, others can have much more accurate impressions of us than we do. That’s according to a review article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The challenge in knowing oneself is that we have blind spots. These gaps are fueled by fears and an unconscious drive to maintain a particular self-image or self-worth. One study showed that even watching a recording of yourself that may be at odds with your self-perception does not change that self-perception. But others watching the same tape easily spot the inconsistency.

A 2010 study found that friends are significantly more accurate in judging traits like intelligence, talkativeness and creativity—traits that are observable and measurable. So when a friend says, “You know, you’re really smart,” it’s very possible that you really are smart.

What we can accurately gauge is our own levels of anxiety and self-esteem. So when giving a presentation, for instance, you’re probably much more aware of state of mind than your audience is. And speaking as a presenter, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

—Christie Nicholson

Now, without question, there are huge questions that would need to be addressed before one could accept many of the statements in that mini-article as literal fact. But it certainly provokes some questions that one may not otherwise think of…and this is precisely where I am going. How well does anyone actually know themselves? More pointedly, how well do we know how well we know about anything at all? Let me break that down. Let’s say that my (imaginary) friend Rosie claims to know herself really well. How does she know this? How does she know that she really has gotten a true insight into herself and that her own perception of who she is does actually correspond with the ACTUAL reality of whom she really is?

Yes, the evidence does suggest that it is easier for us to figure other people out more easily than we can figure out ourselves. Therefore, for many people, it is now a ‘given’ that any given person does not know themselves as well as others do – because external people see us more ‘objectively’ than we see ourselves.  However, is it reasonable to make this a ‘given?’ Is it not also true that people make value-judgements about the character and make-up of other people’s personas based on their own experiences, presuppositions, biases and more? I certainly know what it is to be with people who refuse to accept my own serious and palpable enthusiasm for whatever it happened to be was in any way real – because they themselves could not muster any real kind of enthusiasm of that nature themselves for anything at all – and in imposing this on everyone else, they were somewhat cynical of the ‘realness’ of my own cynicism.

A few took on the challenge of exploring the vibe, and some have become great friends as a result. Others continue to think that I am a strange and not-good person. We cannot win with everyone!

So this is where this particularly well-known bit of advice from Socrates comes into its own: “know thyself.”

Earlier in my adult life, I was one of those people who spent vast amounts of time analysing, assessing and appraising other people’s characters. I became particularly good at this – but then what I did not realise was that I was unconsciously yet deliberately using this as a chief deflecting tactic to avoid the same ruthlessly clinical analysis of myself. It was not until I read the marvellously candid-yet-wonderfully-hopeful Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Goeschel (a book that I will soon be giving to a friend of mine who is a full-time pastor himself – I feel led to do that for him, much as I want to keep it for myself and I do now believe that God is behind this impulse) that I realised the simple truth that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions!

I spent my ENTIRE adult life doing that until I read that statement – and from that moment, my world turned upside down. Not that I always get everything correct and in sync first time round these days – but more that I no longer harbour the quiet complacency of my own state of being based on what I meant to do  – even if I didn’t actually do it. I now have no choice but to constantly assess the relationship between my intentions and my actions – and by the stripes, I do not come out well at all on more occasions than I am comfortable admitting even to myself in my most private moments.

[I have a funny feeling that this statement appears elsewhere in another blog post, but who cares?!]

This is where we’re going: as my levels of actual self-knowledge have gone up and up and up, I have found myself unable to find a place of rest where I can plateau out for a while. Everything that I could do to make my life easier without compromising my principles has simply not worked out. So when ‘easy life’ didn’t work out, I pursued ‘busyness’ instead – only to find myself with nothing to do – and I have since realised that I could have used that time to advance certain areas of my life – but hindsight is hind-sight for a reason! Any fool can be clever after the fact.

Had it not been for John Eldredge’s writings, I might have lost hope altogether – but God used those writings to keep a sense of balance within me – and far from being all-sufficient in themselves, they pointed me back to the Word. I had the strongest sense that I was being thwarted by a loving God who knew that my version of how things were supposed to work out in my life was not necessarily the best thing in the long run. One part of me fully accepted that. But another part of me could not handle the fact that I had no grasp on why things were happening as they were. And the internal conflict (and subsequent consequences) that this created is the worst thing that I have EVER experienced in my entire life. God has done some amazing things in 2011. But other things have been disastrous. Why would He allow some things to work out and not others?!?!?!?!?!?!?

The answer is both simple and yet devastating. Despite having achieved a quite astounding level of self-knowledge, I still did not know enough about certain aspects of myself to be able to continue growing into WHO God wants and needs me to be for my soul’s salvation – and this before we get to the not-so-small matter of the work He has called me to do in Christian ministry. Every family has its problems, but not all problems are equal. Mine is uniquely complicated, and includes a vast number of children who were not all born into positive circumstances. One example: the extent of the irresponsible sexual behaviour on the part of certain of my progenitors has had a monumental impact on the lives of my parents’ generations, on my own generation and (if the current evidence is anything to go by) will continue to impact upon the subsequent generations that will follow. In the widest sense of the word, both my father’s family and my mother’s family have massive dysfunctions. Both families have one abiding common denominator – folk think with their emotions more than with their minds – with the result being that the cognitive damage suffered by MANY members of my family is quite extraordinary. Yes indeed – for those of you who really have not known that the emotional choices we make actually impact our overall cognitive functional abilities over time – so it really is the case that the more emotionally indisciplined we are, the more we hurt our ability to think properly in general! This is a massive concept – go look for Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golem if you have never encountered it before (and even if you have – but have not yet managed to read about it for your own self).

Right across my family spectrum, genuinely rational thought is at a real premium. So this begs the question – what makes any of us think that we are more rational than anyone else?

And what qualifies me to comment on other people’s inability to think coherently and rationally – whether in my family or not?

Well, anyone is free to draw his or her own conclusions about my sanity or reason. I have spent 2011 wondering why I seem to be so strong in my understanding of certain things and so weak in others. And as I look at my wider family and shake my head in bewilderment at various things, I do wonder why I am not more like them…

…oh, wait up just one second –

– actually, I really am like my family, but God has facilitated numerous circumstances that have enabled me to learn, process, think and analyse very differently to virtually all of my (many) relatives. He has also shoehorned me into corners to test my faith and force me to learn to pray different prayers – real prayers, as opposed to earnest academic prayers that are so theologically careful that I end up not relating to God as a Father but as a theology tutor in whose good books I desperately want to be.

I am not fundamentally different to my family at all. But my LIFE has been fundamentally different to both the members of my nuclear family and my wider family. Moreover, my education and experiences have taught me things that even my parents have had no way to learn and know. That is what helps me to see certain things. I am not some wonderfully ‘on-it’ individual who has transcended the limitations of birth, circumstances and culture – I am a peculiar person who has been led on a unique journey by God Himself to learn two things: a) who God really is; b) who I really am.

Discovering the weaknesses in my parents and other older relatives was much more fun when I did not realise that their weaknesses were actually mine too. Some of you readers may not accept that and I won’t fight you, but I stand by that last sentence. Yes, your grandparents may have been racist and you may not be – but is that because you ARE fundamentally different, or because you have LEARNED differently? The two things are not the same!

Discovering the weaknesses in my friends was also more fun until I realised that those who you spend time with, you become like. Now, some of us may have been exceptions to this rule – but even so, we may have taken more of what we didn’t want to take from our friends and associates than we have ever realised. Just because you are not ‘easily led’ in any obvious sense does not mean that you are immune from peer pressure. Many people who become popular and respected for their independence of mind and being end up having to work so hard to maintain the things that gave them that increased social cachet that they are no longer truly independent – unless they stick with being real, in which case they may yet lose the status they once had if their views and behaviour are no longer what others choose to find socially admirable. So who chooses ‘being real’ over ‘being respected?’

The gospel message saved both of my parents, but the gospel is not merely one of many ‘lifestyle choices.’ True, too many Christians do live as if that is all that it is, but it is more than that. I have always known this, but sometimes I want to fit in too. I get tired of walking on my own and I want to belong. And the price to ‘belong?’ My real self.

Ten years ago, in 2001, I nearly left the Christian faith and the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.

In 2011, I came the closest I could ever come to leaving since my experiences of 2001, but despite everything, God has kept me right here in this message. The gospel itself means more than ever before, and the message of the SDA church remains the pathway for me as a conservative Bible-believing Christian. And in knowing myself better, I am more rounded, more empathetic than ever before, more able to connect than ever before – in short, I am a radically superior human being to the one I was this time last year. God’s training regime is never what I would have chosen if I was in charge – but as I want to avoid pain like most of us – I would have gone soft on me. Of course I would. And I would be less as a result.

There are still battles to fight and mountains to climb, but because I have come through this year with my faith still in one piece, I know that the best is yet to come. Praise God, He is the one calling the shots.

So, bring on 2012 in JESUS’ NAME!

What happens when things don’t work out?

Greetings!

It has been some considerable time since there has been SUCH a gap between posts, but with the IAAF World Athletic Championships occupying far more of far more people’s attention than many other things at present, this story turned up and immediately I knew that this was one to share.

Andrew Steele is a British athlete who will tell his own story pretty eloquently below. Thanks to the BBC Sport website for putting this out – what might never have seen the light of day in hard-copy newsprint can be published much more easily online.

To give a taste of what is coming below, consider this:

” The world tells you that if you believe in something, set goals, dedicate yourself to it tirelessly and pick yourself up if you don’t succeed, eventually you will be rewarded. This reward has not turned up.”

Now, it is not only the so-called ‘world’ [what an interesting way of wording that!] who tells this story – the Church has been in the habit of doing the exact same thing, but putting a very ‘Christian’ spin on it in order to make it seem more acceptable – more correct. If you have real faith in God, pray earnestly study the Word [that is an example of ‘belief in something’ – or Someone], set goals, dedicate yourself to it tirelessly and pick yourself up if you don’t succeed, eventually you will be rewarded.

I’ve grown up in a family where one parent believed this wholeheartedly. I’ve grown up in a church where this was loved as an idea. I’ve grown up in a cultural-racial bandwidth where success has not always been measured in ‘positive’ ways, which makes many of  the Christians of all denominations from my race even more determined to ‘succeed’ while praising God for the victory.

You will note that I was able to effectively reproduce the idea as stated by Mr. Steele in a very Christian manner more or less verbatim. So what happens when, for some church members, just like Andrew, the reward does not turn up?

Well, to an extent it does seem to depend on your specific denomination – and the local theological traditions of the folk involved. Here’s why I say that: sometimes the actual doctrinal position of our actual denominations is one thing, but the ‘traditions’ that folk work with are the short-term, frequently-unregulated notions that just get adopted by church members in a given place and time. I have found some Christians to be genuinely sympathetic in times of real and complicated distress – but too many – and too many in my own denomination, where we have serious issues with legalistic behaviour (NOT to be confused with legalistic theology, which we certainly do NOT have) – things going wrong are usually taken – just like Job’s ‘comforters’ – as a sign that all is not well in the spiritual life of the person in question.

This is hideously unbiblical – but – here we are. To provide another ‘taster quote:’ “For every success, there are many, many more for whom things did not go right.”

How oftem do we actually stop to think about this? How many people don’t ever ‘fail’ because they never actually risk ‘success?’ And how is it that so many Christians allow secular standards of success to colour their own personal definitions despite having a Bible that points away from the world’s viewpoint?

Let me now allow Andrew Steele to speak for himself:

“You might have seen me struggling to finish dead last at the World Championship trials a few weeks ago. It wasn’t pretty.

Once upon a time, I ran under 44.94 seconds in the 400m at the Olympic Games. That’s pretty good, I promise.

I am now more than £10,000 in debt, with an immune system ravaged by Epstein-Barr virus (or glandular fever), pride swallowed, confidence shattered and, most importantly, my dreams and goals of the last decade close to being laid out before me in tatters.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. I’m in danger of becoming the Nearly Man.

Writing this could be a pointless exercise in self-absorption, but I want to highlight the lesser-told story of elite sport: the one that doesn’t necessarily end in glory.

Inspirational quotes from sportsmen are endemic – thanks to Twitter, more so now than ever. See if you can pass an hour online without some warble about self-motivation attributed to Armstrong, Woods or Ali. My career is running out of 140-character slogans to fire its engine.

The world tells you that if you believe in something, set goals, dedicate yourself to it tirelessly and pick yourself up if you don’t succeed, eventually you will be rewarded. This reward has not turned up.

A few weeks after the Beijing Olympics my physiotherapist confirmed I had a hernia. I thought it no more than a small setback.

At the time, I was very optimistic about my future athletics career, my mind indulgently cast into a world where I would run under 45 seconds on a regular basis, perhaps working my way towards the British record of 44.36 over the next four years. Then untold fame and wealth or, at least, an appearance on Question of Sport.

This is the lesser-told road, the one that ends in a muddy field, not an awe-inspiring land of BBC montages

That was October 2008, and I was 23. Since then I have competed in a grand total of zero major championships.

I didn’t run at all in 2009 after a groin injury occurred just before the season. I was advised to call the season off to prevent a stress fracture. Ignoring the doctors seemed foolish, as I wallowed in the wonderful optimism a sub-45 clocking had afforded me.

“That’s fine,” I told myself. “In 2010 I will announce my presence on the athletics circuit in a blaze of glory.”

As April 2010 came to a close, I came down with a bit of a cold. Two days passed and I felt normal again. But, when I returned to the track, something was wrong. It wasn’t an injury as such, but my hamstrings were abnormally and excruciatingly tight on both sides.

I was struggling to run, and none of the team physios could relieve the sensation. I was finding it hard to sleep, waking up almost every 90 minutes, all night long.

Two weeks later I was very, very tired, and running times in training that were just embarrassing. A month prior I had been on top of the world, and now I could barely beat the club-level athletes I trained with. I felt as though my athletic ability had been erased overnight.

It turns out, it had.

I was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, and a weight lifted from my shoulders as we finally put a name to what was going on. That was quickly replaced by a descent into the reality facing me.

My 2010 season was being stolen from me. Not again, I thought to myself. I was already living on less than minimum wage and using debt to pay off other debt. I was not in a position to abandon the season without at least trying. What if I could pull it off?

Everyone warned me about pressing on regardless, but I literally had no choice. I turned up at the European trials floating around in a cloud of insomnia, adrenal exhaustion, muscle twitches and hot flushes.

In August that year I came home from the worst training session of my life to find a newspaper interview with former 400m runner Roger Black about his struggle to beat Epstein-Barr.

I spoke to Roger. I spoke to my coach, my family and anyone else even vaguely involved, and I made the decision to stop for the year to give myself the best chance of recovery.

But the route out of Epstein-Barr is complicated and ambiguous. There is no real treatment. The virus can attack the brain – in my case the Hypothalamus, the part that controls your “fight or flight” response – which gives it a psychological potency. That makes onlookers think “it’s all in your head”.

I had to swallow a lot of pride to overcome my northern mockery of things to do with the mind. Nobody gets glandular fever at war, do they? Did any of the shipbuilders of the north-east withdraw from the Jarrow March with chronic fatigue?

However, I could not deny that my ability to run fast, which was kind of important to me, had vanished.

The 2011 season approached and I wasn’t setting the world on fire in training, but I was running reasonably well. On 9 July I posted my season’s best of 45.94 in Madrid, the fastest I had run since 2008. It left me completely exhausted but optimistic, backed up by some of the best training sessions I’d ever had. I was incredibly excited to get to the world trials.

Even when I woke up with a cold, I only thought myself lucky that this was two weeks before the trials rather the week running up to it.

By Friday I felt better but, when I asked my body to sleep on Saturday night, it refused. Was it happening again?

I turned up at the track on Monday morning and the sensation was terrible – and exactly the same as the year before. A seemingly normal cold virus resulting in a sudden drop in form.

I reached the trials and came through a tightly contested heat, but it emptied all my reserves. The final was awful. I finished last, giving everything I had to run the kind of time I used to laugh at.

As a result, here we are. The GB team are competing in Korea at the World Championships, while I mull the results of a scan which confirms I have an enlarged spleen again – one of the indicators of Epstein-Barr. It has happened again.

And now I face the reality. In all likelihood I will be cut from lottery funding at the end of this year, and rightly so. UK Athletics have been wonderful in keeping me on through all the troubles thus far, I am incredibly thankful for that.

I have almost no other income; the amount I was receiving in lottery funding was barely enough to live on anyway.

Unless I find some sort of large private sponsorship, I will be forced into retirement less than a year before the biggest event British sport has ever seen. Can I really just be some guy working in a shop somewhere while the London Olympics inspire and improve our country? While my one-time contemporaries achieve greatness?

I really don’t want a reasonably fast run, in a preliminary round of a major championship, to be the only highlight in a decade of hardship and discipline which left me with five-figure debt.

This is the lesser-told road, the one that ends in a muddy field, not an awe-inspiring land of BBC montages soundtracked by Sigur Ros.

For every success, there are many, many more for whom things did not go right.

That’s the beauty of sport. You don’t embark on a quest for Olympic greatness because it’s a guaranteed easy ride. Fingers crossed, I can change the cards I have been dealt.”

~

Let’s take a look at that final sentence once more: “Fingers crossed, I can change the cards I have been dealt.”

This guy has NOT given up hope. Elsewhere, he has been quoted as saying: ” I would rather experience the lowest low, while chasing the ultimate high, than live a normal life.” Much as some of us would decry any desire for an ‘ultimate high’ because it just sounds so SECULAR, I’d like us to reflect a little more rigorously than that right now, just for a few moments. He would like to experience running at his absolute peak as an athlete and maybe that would be good enough to bring him a spot on the podium. That’s not quite the same thing as sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll, is it? All Andrew asks is for his body to work so that he can run again as an elite athlete. And he is prepared to wait in hope, despite debt, pain, non-sponsorship etc for a chance to ‘change the cards he has been dealt.’

For me right now, as pastoral ministry takes another step closer to fruition in my own life, that is a reminder of the  massive kick up the pants I got from the Holy Spirit some years ago. It went like this: if a secular person has this much much faith in what or who they don’t even know, then the sheer faithlessness of many Christians is an absolute monstrosity on the religious landscape and a denial of the faith that will send more people to the wrong side of judgement than some will find comfortable thinking about. And I am right there in that number unless I acknowledge my own deficiencies in the faith department and work with God to grow in that same faith – without which I cannot please God.

Andrew may or may not make it back to elite athletic competition. He may be another one who never makes it. He may indeed become the Nearly Man of British athletics. But at least he had a go.

Some of you may be tiring of the difficulties of trying to be a Christian – or you may have rejected God because the price seems too high. But my friends, you cannot live on this earth without faith. When worldy pursuits fail despite the best efforts, Jesus will always be there regardless of whether you are a success or a failure in the world’s eyes. Accepting Him is not a ticket to easy street, but believing and accepting the truth of the gospel message will open your heart to life and love and joy like never before.

And that is the joy we all need – so that whether our earthly dreams work out – or they don’t – our joy will never fade away.