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 response to Christian Berdahl; #1 – Syncopation (Part Two)

So Theomusicologist, you do realise that I have been waiting a considerable time for this conversation to continue, don’t you??

Yes indeed, and I’m so sorry! It has been an incredibly intense period with pretty much no letup. And you’re not the only one. But as we get into this, I thought I’d share a comment that came from a reader of Part One of this mini-series.

Really? OK, what did they have to say? Let me quote verbatim:

“hmm..interesting piece…Where is your scientific or whatever to refute berdahls “claim”? sorry but it seems all you have here is opinion rather than fact.”

I hate to use the word ‘interesting’ as they used it, but this is a very ‘interesting’ comment… I can only agree. The evidence suggests that they must have read the last exchange we had, but somehow I still find myself wanting to ask if they actually read it… What do you think? Hard to tell from this, I must say. I mean, the fact is that the very ‘claim’ itself…(and that’s a question, why on earth have they put ‘claim’ in inverted commas when the video is as clear as daylight? That IS what the man said!) is  as wild as it gets, and having thought about it a bit, I can see that Berdahl could have made a diatribe against syncopation without over-stating things as he does with that claim.

Yes, I would say you are definitely tracking on this one. I’ve not begun to unpick the issues regarding syncopation itself as yet – so our friend has shown us all exactly how to read and respond to something without a coherent grasp of what has been read. And so it is easy to now accuse me of having only offered opinions rather than fact. As it is, what I have done is very simple: I have drawn attention to a “fact” of history and the video is evidence (for those who accept). I have proceeded to ask a series of questions, and I have also made statements that are definitely more than mere ‘opinion’ – an example being my point that not everyone who speaks an ‘untruth’ has set out to lie. This is just the kind of unfocussed, empty question that I have come to expect from some people, and I am only drawing attention to this for the benefit of those who would actually like to grow their understanding of matters such as these but who are woefully short of “match practice” in the area of thinking for themselves more rigorously. If you want to be taken seriously in a serious conversation with actual technical content, learn how to ask serious questions!!

Okay, right, got you. This person obviously failed to get the fact that they needed to wait to see what case you were going to make in a future post rather than looking for all your answers in the last post. But don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh? Not everyone thinks as you do, Theomusicologist, and I just worry that people who just don’t think like you will just back away from what you say because…well, to be fair, you’re not what a lot of people expect and your firmness about stuff is hard for people to deal with. I find you hard work sometimes and I’m your friend!

I really appreciate that, and I guess this is why I am trying to communicate on this occasion using a conversational style. It is my professional – not personal – opinion that what Berdahl has said about syncopation is dangerously misleading, and this is why we are engaged in a public conversation about it. But look, I am more than ready to step up the technical conversation. Shall we?

Absolutely! I think it’s time you broke down syncopation in more detail!

Good stuff; so, let’s keep grounded in the context – Berdahl claimed that syncopation itself is the source of ALL occult power in pagan rituals. So my first question is: does the conceptual and practical entity that we call syncopation have what it takes to be the source of any kind of power in and of itself?

What??

Hmm…not entirely sure how to make this one simpler, but let me see…okay, let me put it this way. Just for a moment, freeze on the fact that syncopation is a word with a definition. I’m asking a question on a level of principle here. And the question is this: does “syncopation” have the scope or capacity to actually be a source of occult power in and of itself?

Okay, I am sort of following; I guess Berdahl is saying that it does. Or rather – he is making an assumption on the basis of whatever information he has acquired that syncopation not only has the capacity to be a source of occult power, but that it really actually IS the source of occult power…whoa!

Technical point: that would presuppose that he has actually ‘acquired some information’ – do we know this for a fact? Or has he made this statement on a basis of his own beliefs and opinions?

I’m starting to see where you might be going with all this, Theomusicologist. I’ve just thought of something. I am ALL ears, talk to me! Well, a PhD in systematic theology is not required to understand that Satan himself is the author of sin…sin comes from him, right? That’s what my Bible says – and I’m kind of starting to get a line of thought going in my head that the actual source of ‘occult power’ has be the occult itself, right? Semantically speaking, in this line of thought it can ONLY be the occult itself, my friend! Right! It can only be the occult itself – therefore, the actual source of occult power in pagan worship services is…Satan himself?? Hang on, that would mean that he is the one they are worshipping, but he is the one empowering them to worship him??? Whoa…Theomusicologist, you are a very dangerous person. I can’t always keep up with you, now you’ve started asking questions and my own mind has begun to run into directions faster than I can keep up…you academic theologians are mad, do you hear me?! Mad! My life was simple before I met you…

It’s been said before… But I would hasten to point out that you were responsible for that line of thought, not me! But as you are showing such commendable enthusiasm for the task of thinking through this issue, I think that perhaps we ought to shake things up a bit more. What you’re saying is that you enjoy seeing me even more confused than I am already! Go on, admit it! My good friend, while of course I know what you are getting at, we both know that we can only joke about this because we both respect each other and you know that nothing matters more to me than people having a correct understanding of issues such as this – because sometimes salvation can literally depend on it!

Yes, of course I know this. So shake away, I can take it! What are you about to drop on me? Well now – what do you think the word ‘occult’ actually means?

I already don’t like this question as I know you too well by now! But I will play the game. I’m assuming that it means to do with witchcraft, paganism and satanism. In the way I have tended to use it, I see it as one of the words that defines the kingdom of Satan. Are you about to tell me that this is not quite right? Because if so, I am seriously intrigued!

Loving the framework of that definition, my friend. I can also say that for most of my life I would have said the exact same thing. But I then learnt that the word ‘occult’ comes from the Latin word family starting from the word occultere which means ‘secrete’ – that’s a technical word, but the rest of the word family gives us “to hide,” “conceal” and “covered over.”

Okay…hmm. Wait – are you saying that the word ‘occult’ refers to secret stuff – supernatural stuff that we can’t ‘see’ physically – but that it is not actually always specific to Satanic stuff??

Well, that is unfortunately more complicated than some might find ideal. Why am I not surprised?! Such is life, but let me explain. Okay!

Generally, the modern English word “occult” pertains to: “mystical, supernatural, or magical powers, practices, or phenomena.” That’s a difficulty because theologically we know that good and evil are not equal. What do you mean? Just that! God is the very embodiment of “good.” If God is eternal, then good in any ultimate sense is also eternal. But who does bad come from (if you’re a Christian)?

Satan!

And is Satan eternal?

Er…no, I know he’s not, somehow, but I can’t say why… Let me help. Question: what was Satan? Well, he was Lucifer before he was Satan, and as Lucifer he was an angel, the chief angel in heaven. Of course! And did angels create themselves? No, God made them! Right, so they are not eternal, are they? No, and that means that Satan is not eternal…

Now this is theology, isn’t it? Lucifer had a beginning, and as Satan he will have an end. Sin has a beginning, and it will also have an end. So good and evil are therefore not equal.

You know, I kind of knew they weren’t – but at the same time, I didn’t know that. So how does this relate to the definition of ‘occult?’

Well, the linking of ‘mystical,’ ‘supernatural’ and ‘magical’ is complicated because ‘magic’ cannot apply to God, but ‘supernatural’ can and does, and even ‘mystical’ can and does. I know that some people will get bent out of shape on that issue because they honestly associate the word family around ‘mystical’ to heresies such as Gnosticism, but I can’t stop to fix that right now. My point is that for many people (maybe even most people), all of this ‘supernatural’ stuff is essentially in the same dimension of life.

Okay! So, this is what you call ‘an overgeneralisation to make a point’ isn’t it? Absolutely. Right. And yes, that makes sense to me, actually – because most people I know outside the Christian world have a much more vague conception of the real differences in beliefs across different religions, and even different worldviews. But even that’s not straightforward – because for some African Christians, belief in both God and what we Westerners would call ‘magic’ is not as far apart as would be ideal…

It really could not be less straightforward. Both inside and outside religious communities, confusion reigns. I jokingly refer to what I call the ‘divine magic wand’ when I want to make a serious point about some Christian people’s views regarding and expectations of God and what He is supposed to be doing. There is NO divine magic wand – the very concept is reprehensible on every level – but my point is that one of the great deceptions of the modern world (and the pluralistic notions that are now as common as litter on the streets) is this mish-mash of religious understanding. Result: for too many of us, the dividing line between good and evil is now seriously blurred. I have a confession to make, by the way!

Okay…

I used to watch shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer regularly when I was younger. I comforted myself with vague notions that all this stuff was not real, so it wasn’t hurting me. But eventually I realised – and I know it had to be the Holy Spirit – that to watch these programmes was effectively endorsing the values they espoused, even if I was only interested in being “entertained.” If the storylines were effectively “make-believe” based on lies, then how on earth was it coherent for a Bible-believing Christian to be watching this stuff?

I’m with you, Theomusicologist, and I have a few tales of my own in that regard. But look, we both have to go soon. You’ve spent all this time talking about the word ‘occult’ and our understanding of things to do with the occult. And I am STILL waiting to get to grips with the actual business of syncopation itself! So I need a signpost to where we’re going to go before we part company today, if that’s ok…

Of course, and I really appreciate your willingness to engage with me and my very strange mind. Here’s the signpost: It is not just the secular people whose notions of the occult are scrambled – it is also many Christians! We needed to talk through the fact that good and evil are not equal, didn’t we? You had access to all the information to know that fact, but you hadn’t put those pieces together. Uh-huh. So when anyone talks about “occult power” and “pagan worship services” it is imperative that we break down those phrases – because where I’m going is this: if Berdahl really knew anything about this stuff on any serious technical level, he would not have expressed himself so loosely. I’m not merely questioning his credibility in the area of a technical musical concept such as syncopation; I am questioning his actual understanding of words like ‘occult.’ He insisted that he had somehow come into contact with information from “all occult experts around the world” and on that basis his statement about syncopation ought to be taken seriously.

This is not about a simplistic, emotional response to a highly questionable statement. This is about asking how and why Christians don’t think more rigorously than they do, and encouraging everyone to think more deeply about the stuff that they hear preached and taught. Until next time, my friend: God bless you!

And you too, Theomusicologist!

My greatest battle…

…is not against the forces of hell themselves.

And Satan himself, while the arch-enemy of souls, is not even my greatest enemy.

Now, a church-attending nay-sayer (who may or may not be a true Christian) may argue that anyone who could say what I just did cannot possibly be a Christian. Some might even call it heresy.

But before I respond to that, I need to bring the other strand of this post into the mix…

As both a Christian AND a musician, I face the same enemy. Enemy who is not the devil, that is. And if I am defeated by this enemy as a musician, I lose my effectiveness and my usefulness to that profession. If I am defeated by this enemy in my spiritual life, I lose my capacity to be someone truly worth knowing. And what is the point of being alive if one is not a human being worth knowing?

I propose to enlist the assistance of no less a person than Sir Colin Davis – one of the most outstanding conductors of this era – to help us understand the message of this post.

Earlier this year, the journalist Tom Service wrote: “Sitting in his north London home, surrounded by the accoutrements of a life at the heart of classical music – busts of Berlioz and Beethoven, a letter by Sibelius, a slew of scores on his table – Davis tells me he has spent a lifetime fighting a battle. Not against orchestras, managers, or musicians, but against his ego.”

Now, I’m a conducting graduate of a fairly prestigious institution in the English-speaking world, and I studied with some of the top conductors in the world (not only the UK) – including a three-time Grammy award winner. I’ve become much more involved in the world of professional classical music – as a prospective conductor – and this kind of admission is more common than many people might think. But – only behind closed doors! This is just not the kind of stuff that conductors tend to talk about in wide public forums! So this is not just another sound-bite from a highly-decorated musical public servant – this is a little ‘leftfield’- as contemporary parlance has it.

So, what has this got to do with anyone’s Christian journey?

Let’s now hear from A.W. Tozer (google him right now if you’ve no idea who he was):

“The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven’t yet come to the end of themselves. We’re still trying to give orders, and interfering with God’s work within us. ”

This failure to “come to the end of [oneself]” sounds pretty similar to the idea of ‘battling one’s own ego” to me… Let’s hear from Sir Colin himself:

“One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.

“The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that’s as good as it gets.”

Davis is telling me that whether I get to his exalted level, or somewhere less high-flying, as a conductor, my role is HELP people to feel free to do the best job they can by the music – and that I (me, myself and I) am of ‘no account whatsoever.’

In conducting school I learnt many things – not least that while the best conductors worked incredibly hard to become the best conductors, they were not averse to a few ‘power trips’ every now and then. The very concept of a ‘self-effacing conductor’ was a real oxymoron until I began to work (as a student with some world-class conductors behind closed doors and discovered that they are actually really humble about what they can and can’t do, and what they do and don’t know. But, as I stated earlier – these things are ALWAYS said behind closed doors and NEVER admitted to singers or instrumentalists! So for Sir Colin to express himself in one of the most-read newspapers of our time thusly is very, very interesting to me.

So, if a world-renowned conductor – who is not in any way religious –  is able to admit that his greatest battle over the years has been with his own ego, how come more of those who claim to subscribe to a faith that requires the subjugation of self for a greater spiritual good don’t achieve anything close to this level of basic humility? Indeed, why do so many Christians, having ‘surrendered all’ soon find themselves wanting recognition for having been such a self-sacrificing Christian?

I know that deep in my own heart, I have struggled at times with the temptation to view myself as being more important than I am. This has taken both a positive and negative form. The first tends to surface at times when I experience success and victory in whatever arena – even the spiritual, where I could not have less excuse for forgetting that I did not deliver myself. The second seems to take the form of guilt and personal recrimination for things I have indeed done wrong. Far from being a sign of deep spirituality, the failure of any Christian to truly focus on Jesus as opposed to their own failings, frailties and foibles is in fact one of the subtlest forms of self-absorption that exists. This will keep people going round in circles for YEARS sometimes with no progress whatsoever…

Let’s look again at something Sir Colin said: “One’s ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.” Would to God that this were true of most of us, and especially those of us in ministry!

I desperately want to win the battle against my own ego – but not just so that I can succeed as a conductor – or, even more crucially, as a pastor. I want to win because I want to see God’s face one day. And Romans 7 makes it very clear what I am up against. Let’s look at this passage from The Message translation: “14-16….”I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.”

The reason why I choose to make this point using the Message is because it is absolutely impossible to miss the point of the passage – one of Paul’s toughest, and one frequently butchered by well-and-not-so-well-meaning Christians. And the narrative continues below:

17-20But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

21-23It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

Amazing. Madness. Insanity. Paul is telling us that it is possible to be fully sold out to God, and yet do things that one actively despises. Indeed, the Biblical picture of man is incredibly dark. Although the virtuous self has proved capable of great moral feats, a wicked self lurks within the shadows of the human heart. The prophet Jeremiah famously described the heart of man as being “desperately wicked.” As someone called Paul Thompson states, “Within every human being is the capacity for great good, but also an evil that is deceitful and riddled with selfishness.”

So my propensity to do something really good in music – or in ministry – and especially both – opens me up to a situation where I really fancy myself as being a bit special. As a secular person, this is not unwarranted. But as a Christian, this is absolutely unviable. And yet, this temptation to regard myself highly is more pressing and urgent than any of the sins ‘major or minor.’

So what is the answer to the curse of self? Let’s go back to the Romans 7:

24I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

25The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

I am personally SO grateful for the saving work of the Man Christ Jesus – who literally gave His life so that I would no longer be condemned to fight my own ego-driven flesh without hope for the duration of my time on the planet. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

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.