Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:

SCARY.

It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!

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The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church

Growing amounts of words have been and are being written on the question of congregational singing – or lack thereof –  across denominations. It does not appear that the ‘charismatic’ traditions suffer from this problem in anything like the same way other denominations and movements do. All sort of interesting theses have been put forward; as ever, these vary in cogency, rigour, cultural savvy and theological/Biblical literacy.

As a humanities geek who now crosses the divide between both philosophy and theology, I’d usually have a lot more to say about this. But I have come to type this straight from my devotional this morning. Have a look at this:

The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.

That’s Psalm 118:15 in the KJV. That’s not necessarily going to get you to the import of the text. Try this:

Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!

Now that’s the New Living Translation – one of the many that is berated by various ministry-types and while on one hand I could never recommend it for non-basic Bible study, I refuse to kowtow to the conservative-Biblical mindset that dumps on all but the handful of approved versions. I’m more literate than many people and I grew up with the King James (aka the ‘Authorised’) version and I love literature, but I had to get away from the KJV in my twenties to get back to actually reading the Bible. So I say: any Bible you can and will enjoy reading is better than an excellent translation that you don’t read.

This is relevant because I love Psalm 118 but had never read it in the NLT, and here’s what jumped out at me: what do we hear in the ‘camp of the God-fearing and God-believing?

Songs.

What kind of songs, pray tell?

‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’

Hmm.

I have to ask myself when last I went to church and I could describe the singing as manifesting ‘joy’ and victory.’ I know that people are trying to get people to sing louder – with varied results. I know that people are trying to get people to be more ‘lively’ – with varied results. But far, far, far too often, I am not at all sure that the praise teams or song leaders – and this is before we even consider the pastoral team and the congregations at large – are convinced by what they are singing. You can tell when ‘they like the song’ – but this is now about aesthetics! People like the beat, the flow, the melody, the words (and you can like the beat without there being a drumkit in sight, by the way). But that’s not the same sound as when you are singing out of the depth of your own experience!

I once went to a football (soccer) match. It was set to end in a draw…until the very last minute of the game, the home side scored a winner. I was one of the home fans, and I had the unforgettable experience of standing to my feet with thousands of people and singing the following charming ditty (to a tune that was essentially based on the ‘Bread of heaven’ chorus of the hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah):

You’re not singing,
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing any more;
You’re not singing any more!

That was as HEARTFELT a singing experience as any I’ve been part of. Perhaps the use of a religious hymn contributed to that… Anyway, here’s a final translation – this time, from The Message:

Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs in the camp of the saved? “The hand of God has turned the tide!

Interesting how it is put in the form of a question-and-response. Let me now give you my personal paraphrase of this verse:

“Can you hear the shouts of joy [Psalm 32:15 is a very sobering text on the question of those who are qualified to ‘shout for joy’] coming from that church over there? Can you hear the songs of deliverance? God has done something for these people, and you can hear it in their praise!”

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church?

It’s not because “we had a bad week.” Or because “we don’t know the song.” It’s not even because “I don’t like this style of music” (or, to be more ‘Christian’ about it: “this music is unholy and not fit for the house of God”). And worse yet, it’s not even because “I know that the keyboard player is having an affair with the first elder’s wife.”

It is because we have not experienced victory over sin and self in Jesus Christ.

You ain’t going to sing about what you don’t know unless they’re paying you or you’re auditioning for X-Factor (or something else in that dimension).

We’re not QUALITATIVELY different to anyone else. So we cannot get too close to God in praise and worship, because coming into the presence of a holy God would mean we’d have to change.

So the football fans and the rock concert attendees are freer to worship than we are, because they’re not playing the same game we are. Their game does not involve worshipping one’s own existence whilst pretending to worship God…

 

 

 

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.