WHEN THE MUSIC FADES (‘THE HEART OF WORSHIP’) Matt Redman

 

I feel like I have given ‘mainstream contemporary Christian music’ bad press and short shrift thus far in this series of postings; and I’m feeling something of the need to redress a balance.

And when I initially wrote this piece (oh, two years ago now I think) I was particularly indebted to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for including a Matt Redman song (not this one, actually) amongst his eight Desert Island Discs when he ‘appeared’ on that programme over Christmas 2014.  It was if I recall a lovely, gracious interview, as ever.  It made me reconsider my prejudices; and another thing it made me realise, and despite what I have said elsewhere, what I need to affirm is this: probably every generation has its cohort of pioneering hymn writers/psalmists/Jesus-troubadours who manage either to resist that glamorization and the inevitable contortions of identity that come with the commercial machinery of mass promotion and mass production; or to transcend it in some way; or perhaps just to ignore it and create  valuable psalmody in spite of it.

Now, I wouldn’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of the current sources of great contemporary Christian music. In the greenness of my prime there was the Wesleyan prolificness (prolificity?) of Graham Kendrick, the sensitive and accomplished Adrian Snell… Possibly today it’s bands like Rend Collective whose passionate, homespun, semi-makeshift style of joyous worship breathes authenticity.  20 years ago I found the same excitement in Delirious who –even in concert in Greenbelt a dozen years ago seemed to have managed to sustain their sense of heartfelt worship. (I wouldn’t know if the lucrative results of their excellence have eroded something of that: I surely hope not); and then in amidst the whole ‘stables’ of worship music – Hillsong, Vineyard etc –  there’s the Soul Survivor team with Beth Croft etc; there’s the wonderful solid crafting of Stuart Townend’s songs- these seem to have held on to some kind of worshipful integrity – and there must be loads more I’ve forgotten, or am ignorant of.  In that list (somewhere there) of songsmiths of spiritual integrity, number such as Tim Hughes and…. Matt Redman, composer of this wonderful song.

Because this song is something special, isn’t it.  Its unique because as well as being a valid worship song which engages mind and heart in its lyric and its musical construction – like so many of the psalms almost socratically working through to something that demands resolution in true submission and praise -, its special in that it kind of questions and challenges the very genre of which it is a part – “worship” (or perhaps I mean ‘the worship industry’) “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” he writes, and in doing so, wonderfully refocuses himself and anyone engaged in the listening/singing to the whole raison d’être – “it’s all about you, Jesus”.  For this reason, the song has a distinctive prophetic resonance: it was a song that needed to be written for those of my own Christian generation who have –let’s face it – because of the excitement of the creative process, or even the excitement of musical collaboration, or the alluringly emotive power of the poetic/musical engagement, been tempted to see song as an end in itself. “I’ll bring you more than a song/for a song in itself is not what you have required..” We are indebted to Mr. Redman for bringing us back in this song to the ‘heart of worship’ –which is of course not worship itself, but the object of our worship, our beloved, our redeemer and saviour. Him to whom we sing!

Does all of this have a wider relevance, even, to this very blog (which was conceived initially as a book of autobiographical reflections), to this whole process of reflecting and re-evaluating the place of songs in my life?  Hmmm… in some ways I think so: I hope that that is indeed what’s happening here, too – seeing and appreciating a song for what it is, sure, but also beyond it to its wider context of experiences and resonances that have shaped, continue to shape, our little lives, and how we see things.

 

‘THE SUN’S GONNA SHINE’ and ‘STAYING IN THE SORROW’ – The Fisherfolk

Christians who want wide, rich, real worship expressions ignore the Psalter to their own great detriment – for within it are songs and prayers, rants and exultations, moans, lamentations, sighs of wonder and bafflement to cover most if not all human emotions. Like the News of the World’s old byline ‘All human life is there’; which is to say that the psalms help us somehow to encompass it all, and offer up in songs-of-a-kind all manner of reactions –adoring, angry and ambiguous, and the rest. This is relevant; bear with me.

Anyone who’s been part of an exciting community of believers (and this probably holds true for kinds of fellowships, fraternities and societies) will have known times of burgeoning and creativity, where solidarity is sweet, new experiences come thick and fast, and there’s a spring-like sense  of learning and newness, flow and fruition…and songs of joy and praise come easy and seem natural as breath. If they stick at it, they’ll also know times of quiet fallowness and consolidation; but then there’ll also be times of reduction, of ‘paring back’, times of challenge and disagreements, where once-simple comradeships seem complex and less secure, where disenchantments are expressed, old zeals diminished and where people change course, succumb to tragedy, or simply leave. There needs to be song-prayers for these occasions too, and perhaps that’s something which this pair of songs – never far away from my current playlists – continues to remind me.

Both these songs come from the Woodland Park Community, another expression of the Community of Celebration stemming from the historic renewal that took place at Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. While the U.K.-based Fisherfolk (the C of C’s touring/recording musical ministry teams) produced the great majority of recordings, the Colorado community’s ‘Fisherfolk’ produced three albums in the early 1980s. The first, ‘This is the Day’ reflects more of that early stage of community I mentioned – with songs of great joy, commitment and adoration. It’s a beautiful album. These two songs – both by Margo Farra – more later – come from the second and third albums, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’(1982)  and ‘Willing to Row’(1983). And although these albums are no less commendable and full of vibrant praise, their joy is undoubtedly tinged with more shadowy qualities – resignation, fortitude, consolations….that suggest, perhaps, a community of worship having to confront and embrace difficulties that make their sacrifice of praise all the more steely-real.

And so to the first of these songs, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’ which gives the album its title too. It ends the album, with Margo herself (I think?) taking the lead on her own self-penned lyrics. While it is indeed a song of hope and confirmation (the chorus: ‘The Sun’s gonna shine/ Just wait and see/ Spring’s gonna come/ I can feel it in me, can’t you?’), there’s an undeniable melancholy about it, underscored by the hypnotically repetitive melody lines, and explicit in its context – ‘Watching you go is the hardest thing I’ve ever done…’. There’s an elegiac quality to this (appropriate then that it was sung in Margo’s funeral some years later),  but more probably it’s about someone leaving community, breaking strong familial links forged over years of common spiritual struggle and friendship. The details in it make it sound an intensely personal song, yet for me it’s personal in the same way as David’s rawest psalms, which become ‘universal’ as cries and prayers we can all tap into. Like many a psalm, too, it traces a line through the sorrow and incomprehension to a kind of faith-intuition and acceptance (‘To find your life, you’ve got to lose your life, so you say/ Well that’s hard to believe, but in your life/ I see it working that way…’) and a further step, to the faith-declaration of the chorus, where other voices join, harmonizing, to swell out to something substantial.

Margo’s contribution to album three was also the closing track, and there’s something of a similar feel to it, and once again, a similar honest psalm-like quality to its plaint – ‘Staying in each other’s sorrow/ Bearing one another’s pain/ Sometimes I wonder/ If we’ll ever, ever laugh again..’ which hints at some of the sadnesses and challenges  the community was confronting in faithfully following their call. Once again, for most of the song the melodic range is repetitive, though in a haunting rather than a numbing way – and this time the lead vocal is given to Diane Davis Andrew whose sensitivity and precision give the sound a beautiful stark crispness. Lyrically here, even moreso than in ‘The sun’s gonna shine’, we have that psalmic note of yearning and enquiry – ‘Will we ever laugh..?’ –at one point ‘Sir, we’re here to ask you, will we ever…?’ The corresponding strain of faith, the answering response, comes in two ways: in a counter-song (taken up by the male vocalists) towards the end of the song, with the Lord’s promises and invitation to rest, peace, sustenance, healing… (‘Place your hurting hearts…in my love/ and let me warm them with my truth..’) and secondly in the more declarative hopeful tone of the last verse – sung now in unison, while Diane’s voice soars a joyous descant – Singing in the sorrow/ dancing in one another’s pain..’ and there’s something wonderful and slightly enigmatic about the final lines – ‘Because we asked the question/ our lives will never be the same..’ Not sure I fully comprehend it, but it sounds to me like an unapologetic endorsement of the way of life the community has chosen – despite sorrowful  difficulty, to live authentically with real-ness, asking questions of God (and of each other) and open to answers in ways that are literally life-changing.

I might not have recognized the beauty and worth of these two songs if they had not appeared at a time when my own awareness of church/community struggles and difficulties made them seem eminently applicable. Like I said at the start, we need songs for these stages in our communal experiences, and these fitted the bill. In a not dissimilar vein, I wrote some songs of my own at this time – ‘Calvary Love’, ‘We have a Saviour’, songs of a consolatory/encouraging tone. Perhaps Margo’s songs (and some of King David’s) helped me to find a voice.

Margo  Farra – perhaps someone should write the story of how the Farra tribe and spouses got touched by God in the destiny-shaping sweep of Spirit-renewal  at Houston… I never met Margo Farra in any of my visits to the Community of Celebration or various ‘Celebration Days’ in Dorset. But everything I’ve read and heard of her attests that not only was she well acquainted with grief – from childhood, through marriage difficulties, to her early death from cancer – but that she was an effervescent, creative character, with enormous vivacity alongside great pastoral sensitivity and warmth.  I wish I’d known her, but all I’ve known of her is these two songs, and I am more than grateful to her for them, for they have extended for me the Psalter, encouraging and enabling me to offer even the most painful experiences up in melodic prayer.

[Since completing this I’ve discovered a youtube clip containing Wiley Beveridge’s beautiful tribute to Margo, his song ‘ I will RememberYou’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js7xvpj8MT4  ]

A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

CONFITEMINI DOMINO – Taize

I was first introduced to Taize chants – and it was this one, in fact – in a fairly unusual setting. In 1988 I attended a weekend conference on ‘The Early Church’ run by the London Mennonite Centre and held at their lovely place in Highgate. The directors of the centre, Alan and Eleanor Kreider led the teaching (in the most collaborative manner I’d ever seen, incidentally) and also led the worship – which was low-key in some ways, but consisted of a few songs unfamiliar to me, most of which were apparently based on first or second century hymns, of course. Eleanor Kreider has actually written a couple of books about worship, and how to ‘put it together’; she is keen to see us drawing on diverse traditions so that we compile rich, colourful worship experiences.  And anyway, they included this Taize chant in the mix.

I’d never heard of Taize. I knew nothing. But this was something different for me: the novelty, perhaps, of singing in Latin, but the ‘release’ of it, too – singing a simple encouragement/truth/ affirmation/acclamation (Trust in the Lord who is good – Alleluia) repetitiously, quietly, insistently without histrionics. Even then I’d read enough Merton and Nouwen to be familiar with the idea of prayer ‘descending from the mouth to the heart’ and I felt that this kind of chant was another way to help this happen.

I was well aware, too, I think, that some of my fellow believers would roll their eyes at this kind of thing and consider that it was just a way for Christians to do a bit of suspect mind-emptying, a bit of transcendental ‘om’ing, for the sheer brainless trendiness of it. But oh no no no, it felt far more substantial a form of worship-vehicle than that. So I persisted and explored.

I was very excited to get my first Taize cassette tape (containing this song, in fact) from the Catholic bookshop in Cardiff. My developmentally challenged friend Dean Anthony Paul Lloyd was with me, and, looking back – I feel sorry for him having to listen to repetitious Latin chants all the way home in the car. In fact, while we’re at it, I really need to issue a broader apology – to Sue, to the kids, to anyone who shared a car with me in the heady days of that new enthusiasm. What for me was a moving worship experience might well have seemed an interminably monotonous piece of pseudo-religiosity to them, and in no sense appropriate driving music! OK now and sadly only now, I’m aware of how insensitive and selfish I was – sorry guys, and tell your psychoanalysts I’m sorry too.

One revelation, for me, of the recordings on the cassette, was the way that a short chant like this could live and breathe and sustain itself for (eg) ten minutes or more, through a series of ‘constructed progressions’. It was not formulaic, and differed from song to song, but it could go something like this – first few times unaccompanied four part harmonies (this sustained throughout), next couple with a bit of quiet organ, a couple with other instruments quietly bringing in a counter-melody; next time with stronger voice; then with a solo violin over the top; the next with an added flute highlighting the counter melody; then softer voices; then back to whispered unaccompanied…and suddenly you’ve sung it sixteen or seventeen times. You get the picture – there’s a certain conscious choreography effecting  a cumulative intensity and – perhaps surprisingly to us Wesleyan hymnsingers – a depth of appreciation and awareness, that makes each chant more than mere ‘vain repetition’.

These days, Taize songs have ‘taken their rightful place’ in the canon of modern worship resources. Many churches have monthly ‘Taize services’ (and since we’re on the subject I’ll say a thank you to Rebecca HC who led some while they were with us) – in acknowledgement, perhaps, of the need to worship, sometimes, without the encumbrance of too much wordiness… Thank you Lord for Jacques Berthier, and for Taize and its witness and ministry. And, o my poor little song-obsessed soul ‘Trust in the Lord – who is good’. This is such a lovely song to sing…join me now..Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus… Alleluia!

‘I’D LIKE TO SIT YOU DOWN’ – The Fisherfolk

Well, yes, Fisherfolk, but also in a special way Patricia Allen of the Fisherfolk. There are two possible approaches here: I could start by writing about Pat Allen, but this feels like holy ground, and I need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

So let’s start anecdotally, with my first – miraculous? life-changing? – flesh and blood encounters with the Community of Celebration. It was the summer holiday in between leaving my two year job with the civil service and starting PGCE Teachers’ Training, 1976, and I decided to travel around Scotland for three weeks on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ Rail Card. There were several exciting, beautiful, funny and interesting parts to this journey – but, arriving at Edinburgh, I encountered for the first time the amazing Festival, and decided I could spare the city a few days , at least! Even then (!) the variety and breadth of Festival and Fringe events were overwhelming – my first Chekhov – RSC’s ‘The Three Sisters’ (with Ian McKellan, I recall!) , part of the ‘official festival’, blew me away. In amongst all the posters on the Golden Mile, I chanced upon one (or more?) for ‘The Fisherfolk’ – featuring in a variety of events  – a cafe/bar concert of songs; a Eucharistic celebration featuring one of Betty Pulkingham’s Eucharistic settings; and…a brand new musical entitled ‘Ah! There’s the Celebration!’

So indeed and of course, I soaked up whatever of these events I could – discovering in the process that, news to me, the Community of Celebration had relocated to Scotland, a little island called Cumbrae, just off the West Coast. The musical, held in a church  just off ‘the Mile’, featured some great songs built around the concept of a ‘family’( ie a community of Christian believers) refusing to conform to life-as-a-game-of-monopoly, subverting it by resisting opportunities to act acquisitively or competitively, instead offering sharing and kindness. Memorably the Games-master ‘Dev’ (played by David Gustafson) shouts in frustration ‘Jesus Christ! Read them the rules!’ at which point Mikel Kennedy – present throughout the action , with his guitar, as Jesus-on-a-stepladder, begins to recite some of the Sermon on the Mount. If I’ve made it sound crass or comical, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, powerful stuff. Pat Allen (and Martha Barker)’s song ‘I’d Like to Sit You Down’ beautifully exemplifies this non-competitive subversively compassionate behaviour. It’s both a reflection of Christ’s compassion for the world and a manifesto for the servant heart of a Christlike church – ‘Your feet are so weary/ From walking through problems much too big for you/ I’d like to sit you down/ Gently wrap a towel around/ And bathe your feet with my tears..’This song, like so many of Pat Allen’s, is a unique hybrid – part Broadway musical song in structure, part holy anthem. Nothing derivative or formulaic or stereotypical about this kind of Christian song; and I was deeply moved. Later in my journey I  chased up the Community to their home, centred around the Cathedral of the Isles on the Island of Cumbrae, got to meet Bill Farra, spent a night there, and was hooked for life. The following year I spent a whole week there.

Pat Allen, Pat Allen… Even on a purely vocal level there was something special there. While she seems to have been around quite close to the start of the music ministry (check out the late sixties’ ‘Keyhole’ albums, from the Houston coffeehouse ministry) her voice seems to have been used fairly sparingly – one of the earliest I recall is Betty Pullkingham’s ‘Bless thou the Lord’ psalm setting, where Pat sings the verses; then there’s her chillingly incisive rendition of the traditional ‘Mary had a Baby’ on a rather more choral album. It was a voice that uniquely melded both purity and warmth.

Her compositions, though, as I’ve said, were unusually theatrical – the still haunting composition ‘They have no Wine’ was probably our first taste of this, on the ‘On Tiptoe’ album. Then ‘The Carpenter’s Song’ (also featured in that same Fringe Musical in 1976) – a boldly human love song to the God-man Jesus. But she also had a deft touch with psalms – her setting/interpretation of ‘The Snare is Broken’ and her achingly beautiful setting of Daniel Berrigan’s rewriting of Psalm 131 – ‘May I to my Lord Hasten..’. All gorgeous.

If I ‘met’ her on my two visits to the community at Cumbrae, I never got a chance to chat. I do recall, however, a luminously peaceful smile; I also recall her giving someone a friendly back massage during one of the community meetings.. In the regular newsletters I began to receive from the Community in the late seventies, early eighties, it became clear that Pat was obeying a perceived call to a more solitary, contemplative life – within the community (I believe some kind of hut was discovered and employed within Cathedral grounds, where Pat could entertain visitors who came for prayer,  counsel, spiritual direction.) Sometime later I read she’d felt a call to live in Israel. Later still that she’d joined a Catholic Order of sisters there, and, just a couple of years ago, that she’d died there.

The existing Community of Celebration (with help, I suspect, from those many who’d left, been dispersed to other fruitful lives, but who cared, and wanted to honour how Pat has touched their lives) had the good sense to release a posthumous collection of her songs, and truth be told, I treasure this CD above most in my voluminous collection. And alongside the many new-to-me treasures unearthed, and amongst the old songs, this one, (co-written I believe with Martha Keyes-Barker) shines brightly as a statement of her own giving heart; and as a clear, quirkily unique colourful testimony to the Father’s goodness, the sacrificial grace of the Son, the mysterious and life-giving energy of the Spirit.

SWEET JESUS by The Keyhole/The Fisherfolk

Stumbling, as one might, across Isaiah 12:3 again recently, reminded me of this wonderful song.  And now I’m rediscovering it, and being refreshed by it all over again.

Its provenance, I think, is an interesting one, and I am going to indulge in a little informed guesswork, to work through its tangled origins.  I’m actually not sure if I first heard the song on the vinyl album by The Keyhole (the Church of the Redeemer’s coffeehouse worship and ministry team), a group incidentally that seemed like a ‘second generation’ Keyhole, since the core of their original team had already relocated to the UK to become the base of The Community Of Celebration and of its touring music and creative ministry team to be quickly dubbed ‘the Fisher folk’; or was it in fact from that very same ministry team that I first heard it, when Colin drove us to the Woodcroft Christian centre in Chepstow?  [ More about this in my blog on ‘I am a Rock’ from July’s postings] Diane Davis took the lead vocal in this small team and the bright clarity of their delivery highlighted, in a startlingly fresh way, the song’s poetic appreciation of the Spirit’s potentially dynamic effect on our lives.

I note that the song’s composers are David Lynch and Grace Krag.  For anyone fascinated, as I am, in the history and development of ‘intentional’/experimental Christian Communities, I heartily recommend reading the extensive account of a community called The Symphony Of Souls, and later The Trees, recounted with helpful detail and eloquent selection, in a blog (though its dozen or so sections comprise something easily book length) by one of its founding members Katheryn (Shishonee) Reutenik, under the title of ‘the Seven Story Bus: the story of the Trees Community’ http://www.thetreescommunity.blogspot.co.uk/  It is one of the most fascinating accounts of the development of a spiritual community which I have ever read and more than repays the patience of sticking with it.

This small, hippie-ish, counter cultural community, with its own rhythms of worship litanies and liturgies, and diverse experimental music styles – with an emphasis on a range of instruments that would now signal ‘world music’ – found themselves, at one stage of their windblown itineraries ‘parked up’ for a while at Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  going of course through its own emerging radical and life changing renewal.  As is the way of these things, there seems no doubt that there was both friction and blessing in the mix, mutuality of influence between the communities, and mutuality of effect.  ‘Symphony of Souls’ songs show up in early Redeemer/Keyhole/Fisher folk recordings –‘The Bell Song’ (most notably), ‘O Jesus How I Love You’, ‘He Was Wrapped In Flesh’, on a Christmas album, and, I’m guessing, this song.

Certainly David Lynch was a member of the Symphony Of Souls.  Katheryn’s narrative names this as a song which their team performed .  She also comments about Grace Krag considering and praying about the possibility of joining their community –though clearly she didn’t: she turns up as a flautist on recordings of the Woodland Park Fisherfolk in the early eighties.  It would seem that she stuck with the Redeemer/Celebration model.

So maybe this song was a collaborative outcome from the mingling of the two communities?  Perhaps Grace wrote a poem which David put to music, adding the Isaiah verse as a chorus? [Since starting this,my ‘researching sources’ have confirmed my guesses are not far off the mark. Grace’s lyric is in fact part of a poem she wrote originally as a student assignment; another Symphony of Souls member David Karasek suggested inserting the Isaiah verse as a refrain; the whole was presented on a birthday card to David Lynch who almost immediately  ‘heard’ a tune for it.] However extraordinary the collaboration, the result is whatever the spiritual version of ‘magical’ is.  The five verses focus on Biblical images and keywords for the Holy Spirit –fire, power, love, breath, water – handled with a light but freshly poetic touch, and with a personal perspective – i.e.  Lord, this is what your spirit does, not just generally, but in me … And the images are not twee or overly-gentle, if you know what I mean.  While the fourth verse highlights the Spirit as wind/breath ..’gently breathes, bringing peace, freeing me… the opening verses are much more shockingly dynamic – ‘Your fire purely sears a clean hollow within me..’ and ‘ Your spirit…breaks through me…/ Constrains my fragile will…’ Grace says her tutor compared her poem to Donne and suddenly, yes, now I see the distinct  parallels to Donne’s sonnet  ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’!

The use of the Isaiah verse as refrain is inspired, masterfully appropriate – launched from the springboard of each verse, it presents something at the same time a response (‘Therefore, with joy..’) and a promise (‘..shall ye draw water…’) and an affirmation of mysterious depths to the sources of the Spirit’s power/love/life (‘..out of the wells of salvation’); the melodic contrast which the refrain  offers sounding like a peal of confident bells.

The original Lynch/Krag composition contains a prefaced vocative/invocation ‘sweet Jesus’, given slow, rich harmony  on the album to which it gives its name. While on the surface it may seem a dispensable and incidental bit of preparatory throat-clearing, I believe there’s sound theological justification for it – acknowledging Christ as the ‘giver’ and conduit for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of those who follow and love – ‘Your spirit within me…’. Interestingly, when, a decade or so later, another recording team from the Fisherfolk stable (largely a British one from the community’s interaction with the Post Green Community in Dorset)made a fresh stab at the song, they dropped the invocation, changed the title to ‘Wells of Salvation’ and –though surely not necessarily because of that- produced something which, while valid in its own way, doesn’t for me match the exhilarating zing of the original.

I’m loving the song all over again. And I’m feeling that even at 62 there’s more re-re-rediscovering of the mysterious third person of the Trinity to be experienced – (which is probably the pattern more or less of two milennia of church history!) . Grace and David’s song makes the connection between the Isaiah verse, and John 7:38 (Jesus’ extraordinary public pronouncement on the last day of a significant temple feast); and the subterranean connection between those verses still excites. I more than suspect the well’s still full, and deeper than we can imagine!

JESUS, I LOVE YOU by The Church of the Redeemer/ Fisherfolk

The other night, unable to sleep while lying in a constricting sleeping bag on an uncomfortable airbed on the floor of a church hall (doing a rare stint supporting the local night shelter) I put this song on repeat on my iPod, until the battery gave out and I still wasn’t asleep.  But at least .. I remembered… and I remembered what this song meant to me.  And –incidentally – the wakefulness allowed it to minister to me.

Winter 74, spring 75, my then girlfriend Tina passed me a cassette tape of worship music which had been passed on to her by her close college friend.  Apparently, this friend had made an amateur recording of a service she had attended at a dynamic church in Houston, Texas, while she had been travelling in the States.  Sadly, this friend was later discovered to be a spectacularly mendacious attention seeker.  And sometime later, I realized that this recording was in fact a commercially available recording which the Church Of The Redeemer choir(and musicians?) had recorded and released under the title ‘God’s People Give Thanks’.

None of this minimizes the effect of this little cassette.  In amongst stirring traditional hymns like ‘Crown Him With Many Crowns’ and ‘Glory be to Jesus’ there were unusual items – a boys’ choir singing an unusual setting of ‘Micah’s message’ to some subtle rhythmic percussion; a gorgeous  acappella Jewish-type tune, ‘Glorious in Majesty’; some jaunty Alleluia songs with tambourines (which later I came to appreciate as joyous Mimi Armstrong–Farra praise expressions); a wonderful ‘8 fold alleluia’ of utter simplicity, but growing in worshipful intensity.  And in a not too dissimilar vein, there was this.

Five chime bells signal the melody of the first line, and from there on the song is unaccompanied.  What was thrillingly fresh about it, I think, was that on the one hand there were these exquisite choral harmonies, but on the other, the song itself could not have been simpler.  And what simpler expression of adoration could there be than the entirely unadorned sentiment ‘Jesus, I love you’?

I was later to see that this is a mark of Kathleen Thomerson’s style, or perhaps rather, a mark of the way God had clearly taken hold of this talented composer-organist.  All her songs are marked with that same freshness and simplicity of authentic expression.  Take for example the other song of hers included in this recorded Eucharistic service – and now much more widely known and used – ‘I want to walk as a child of the light’.  This has the same disarmingly direct kind of lyric.  Later on, I was also to discover and appreciate other songs of hers – ‘I love the name of Jesus’ and ‘The Shepherd Of My Soul’.

Something else about the lyric of this song –one gets the sense that she didn’t necessarily go for neat poetical crafting – e.g. it didn’t always rhyme (‘now we have seen/the love of God/he has poured out/the spirit of truth…’) because it simply says what she wants it to say, and that seemed then – and seems to me even now –wholly part of its ‘anointed’ status.

Listening to it over and over in my unsleeping state that night, I realized that in my love and appreciation of this song I may well have mentally sidelined a major part of its lyrical thrust –the fourth line of the chorus: ‘Take my life.’ In the first verse too – ‘Life is your gift/I give my heart…’ and this beautiful song helps to lead us there –simple adoration, yes, but surrender and self-giving too.

I AM A ROCK by Diane Davis Andrew and the Fisherfolk

I could write a whole book, of course, just about my relationship with Fisherfolk songs, my enchantment with which defined possibly a whole period in my life, probably my whole approach to worship and my own predilections in contemporary worship songs; and probably still informs who I am today.

Fisherfolk: the touring/performing/recording arm of the Community of Celebration, which in turn emanated from the renewal of community/worship in Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s.  I was fascinated from the word go –from Michael Harper’s book about the church (‘A New Way of Living’), and my first LPs obtained through Fountain Trust –from their ‘Keyhole’ coffeehouse ministry.  Diane Davis would have been one of those singers.

No space here to discuss the far reaching extent of my interest (some might say obsession).  Let’s focus on this song.  It appears on an album which –unlikely, now –is a recording of an Anglican eucharist service using a liturgical setting composed by Betty Pulkingham, ‘Celebrate the feast.’ This song turns up as one of three or four in the ‘free’ section which presumably accompanies the actual communion time.

When I think of the song now, I think of listening to it while I was living in Aunty Jan’s house (when Graham and Gail went to live in my house, in the early months of their marriage), in the front room, with a record player.  That fluidity in our living arrangements and the sense of shared life and community they represent are entirely apposite of course to what I/we were soaking up from the Community of Celebration; or what we were replicating from our own experience of the Spirit’s wind sweeping through us.

For the first of many listens, I got a frisson of excitement each time I heard this song.  There was the bell like clarity of Diane’s voice, of course; there was Max Dyer’s always sensitive cello accompaniment;  but there were so many other elements blending together too: there was for instance a dangerously bold prophetic voice to the lyric –presuming to speak out the Lord’s words to his people rather than the(more usual) people’s cry to God –in supplication or praise.

Some of the verses were more conventionally acceptable symbols – ‘I am the bread of life/my blood is the wine…’; ‘come to my marriage feast/I’ll remove your tattered garments of sin…’ but the opening verse, repeated with rich harmony and descant at the end, seemed entirely fresher, more original…  And of course there were the obvious resonances with Paul Simon’s song of the same name, a more angst ridden celebration of romantic isolation.

But this wasn’t about isolation, this was a stirring voice promising solidity, and together the verses offer a healing invitation to experience divine grace, and life, from the source and foundation of all goodness and love.

A post script of sorts: the first touring performance of the Fisherfolk I ever saw (after this disc?) comprised Diane Davis, Jon Wilkes, Maggie Durren, and Louise Jolly, a pared down travelling team, but still effective.  Strangely, (as well as the much reduced but still vitally existent Community of Celebration in Pittsburg), Diane Davis and her husband Bob Andrew are perhaps the most active even today in keeping alive the heritage of blessing gleaned from the multifaceted ministry and creativity streaming outwards from that historic source, compiling as they do the ‘Celebrate the whole of it’ website.