What a gift John Bell is to the church in the 21st century. As a contributor to BBC Radio’s ‘Thought for the Day’ he speaks an infinite deal of very listenable common sense and godly compassion. As a speaker representing the Iona community and the Wild Goose Resource Group, he is both engaging and inspiring. Yet in extremely low key, human ways.
In my early years as a Christian, I remember that we were often counselled about the dangers of ‘being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’ (Ha! Really? I’m not sure even now if this can ever be a genuine concern, since most of the really heavenly minded people that I’ve met tend also to be those most focused on making a difference in real, practical terms too.) Still, if there’s any validity to this malaise, it’s an accusation that can certainly never be levelled at John Bell, whose Godly down-to-earth-ness is tangible, and whose most worshipful songs never lose touch of the needs and sorrows of humanity. Which makes this song eminently representative of both his style and his concerns. Heaven touching earth etc.
If you’ve been in a John Bell singing workshop, you know what a privilege that is. I suppose I first saw him in that role in Greenbelt festivals, where not only is he often a keynote speaker, but in the past has often been known to help lead Wild Goose Sing A Long sessions in one of the meeting tents. These are always incredibly well attended, and you can sense the palpable delight of people learning to sing these beautiful new chants and songs, in unison, in men-and-women ‘echoes’, and gloriously also in four part harmonies. I was privileged enough to go to a whole day workshop he led in a church in Cardiff-oh, probably 20 years ago now –I’d just started teaching in the Catholic comprehensive school where I ended my fulltime teaching career –and was delighted to find, when I got there, others from my teaching staff with an equal interest in developing and exploring worship songs.John Bell clearly crossed ‘sectarian boundaries’! It was a great day.
I can’t remember if we sang this one, but it seems to have been on my radar and in my mental repertoire for quite some time, along with his other classic ‘The Summons’. Many of the pieces that I love from John Bell’s prolific output are the short, simple chants that allow us to meditate in more focused ways on simple God-realities– he demonstrated that we didn’t have to rely on the Taize output for this kind of song! ‘A Touching Place’, though, is one of the longer, more ‘fully formed’ songs and (this again a very Wild Goose approach) employs a traditional Scottish melody –Dream Angus. For me it’s not just a beautiful song but it’s beautifully crafted too. We start off establishing a Christ-centric perspective of the world “Christ’s is the world in which we move;/Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;/Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,/and Christ is the one who meets us here.” While the chorus underlines Christ as actively compassionate in that world through/with ‘his friends’ : “to those who cry in pain or disgrace/Christ makes with his friends a touching place’
What a fresh, interesting phrase. John Bell (and Graham Maule, presumably! Sorry Graham that I know less about you!) not only avoids the clichés of traditional hymnody, but he finds language, phrases that make us think and rediscover spiritual truths –because yes ‘touch’ is very much at the heart of of Jesus’ ministry, if we think of the gospel narratives of his interactions with people. There’s been quite a bit of footage of Princess Diana on TV over the last couple of weeks (20th anniversary of her death) and I had forgotten what a revolutionary thing it was when she broke with royal protocol to visit Aids victims, people afflicted with leprosy and other diseases –turning up gloveless! Touching them and allowing them to touch her. I’m not beatifying Diana here, just saying that kind of spirit was a reminder of the Christ spirit which this song addresses.
The remaining three verses of the song start with the same imperative ‘feel for..’ addressed I suppose to the singing congregations themselves, but also implying (if we think of feel as sort of a synonym for touch) that these are the people Christ’s hands are reaching out to draw into that tangible embrace. And the verses catalogue some of the hurts of ordinary humanity ‘feel for the strange or bereaved or never employed’; .. ‘feel for the women whom men have defiled’; ‘feel for the lives by life confused/riddled with doubt, in loving abused’etc…And there is the realistic recognition that this is not always easy for us- ‘Feel for the people we most avoid..’ After the painful reminders of these verses, it is a joy to return to the affirmations of the chorus.
Many of these little blog essays, while claiming to have been about songs, have often ended up focusing on particular recordings by the composer or this or that artist. This time, though, we are very much about the song, not the recording. The song as a living breathing usable thing, of affirmation, celebration, reminder and challenge. Having said that, recordings do exist of course, from the stable of the Wild Goose Resources. And what is always lovely and commendable is, on their own recordings [and I couldn’t find a youtube clip, sorry]the sheer unabashed Scottishness of the singing –so refreshing in this X factor age when –even in some Christian music –the temptation seems to be to distort ones vowels to something more (at least) ‘mid-atlantic’! And this may seem a simple thing, but in a small way I think it adds to the very authentic humanness of this kind of holiness. Lovely song: let’s keep using it.