Thursday, April 20, 2017

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use ( tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue

2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin

3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong

4. Cornerstone - Hillsong

Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Christopher Idle's 20th Century hymn Yes Finished The Messiah Dies and Bernard of Clairvaux's medieval O Sacred Head.

We mix older hymns and newer songs together. Songs are picked by our senior minister and myself in collaboration with our five band leaders and music coordinator - a team of 3 men and 5 women, seeking to serve the church with songs that will allow them to express their faith and to form their hearts.

We aim to introduce about 1 new song a month - some of which 'take' better than others. Our recent new song list looks like this...

December 2016 - When my heart is torn asunder by Phil Wickham

January 2017 - Come Ye Sinners - an old hymn reworked by the Norton Hall Band.

Febuary 2017 - This I believe - the apostles creed set to music at the bidding of Michael Jenson by Hillsong

March 2017 - Come behold the wondrous mystery

April 2017 - Where O Grave, a new song from the British Co-mission church group in London

May 2017 - Love came down by Ben Cantelon

June 2017 - You died for me - Sam Cox's meditation on the cross

We try to pick diverse songs and only new songs that add something to our choices, to give a good balance of musical styles, clear and understandable theology and themes, teaching songs, laments, celebrations, reflections, confessions... Our choices, as well as our musicians, take their place to serve the gathered congregation in singing.

We covers a complete age range though I guess put our average age is a little under 30 years old, around 80% British, with 20% international students and scholars - largely from China and Malaysia. Most people in the room are believers, many of them having moved into the area having come to faith elsewhere, though some have come to faith locally. We find there are always some guests in the room who are exploring faith. Those who are believers bring a wide range of songs they know, and those from other cultures or who are just exploring faith may know very few songs. Thankfully the best church music is necessarily written to be easy to understand and learn, to sing together and to hear others singing.

See also Olly Knight's Word Alive 2017 list.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"In these stones horizons sing..."

[19] Then Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honour him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.’ 
[20] Achan replied, ‘It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done...    
[24] Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 
[25] Joshua said, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.’ Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. [26] Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since. (Joshua 7:19-26)
For a 21st Century European it's hard to see why anything deserves a death penalty, but the Old Testament law establishes this as part of the community ethos. You forfeit your life if you betray God and his people in certain ways. Perhaps not your eternity, but certainly this life.

In a culture terrified of death and determined to leave a lasting legacy this is hard to comprehend, but we still want justice for wrongs done. And if some wrongs should receive some sort of sentence, then why should offence against the Lord not have serious consequence.

Achan's death sentence is "trouble from the Lord" against this confessed sinner (v20). And he becomes a monument of trouble. His grave marked as The Valley of Achor - Trouble Valley. The stones that bury Achan warn his community, but also must be read in a wider context.

Many pages and centuries later, Hosea later prophesies that it's the Lord's intent - driven by love for people who have betrayed him - to take this Trouble Valley and make it into Hope Door - (Hosea 2:13-15). The Lord will take the stones of trouble and subvert them, upend them, transform them to build a gateway through which sinners find hope.

The Lord's story then is one in which the place of wrath is turned into mercy, trouble to hope. In Hosea's preaching, a byword for betrayal becomes a place of beautiful betrothal. Thus stands the cross of Christ - not  a pile of stones but a man pinned to a tree. Hosea's story is the story of the Lord Jesus - one who had no sin to confess and received a death sentence in our place.

Such is the Father's divine romance, orchestrated with the Son and the Spirit, to bring mercy to sinners. Let the stones cry out...

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, 
Weak and wounded, sick and sore; 
Jesus ready stands to save you, 
Full of pity, love and power.

Image - Bernard Spragg - Creative Commons

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Why good people are divided by politics and religion.

Why do we speak past one another? Why do we think those who differ with us are evil?

Jonathan Haidt says that fundamentally it’s because we’ve built our understanding of what matters to us on different foundations. It’s not just that we come to different conclusions but that we get there for different reasons. We can’t see why someone would see the world a different way because their perspective is based on values that we don’t hold, which may even conflict with ours.

I’d seen psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book cited in several articles and I engaged with that here. But, I’m really glad I followed up the footnotes to get a copy.

In the end, Haidt is appealing for us to seek to understand one another better, not to demonise those with whom we differ, and even to work together – each bringing our different strengths to the table.

The book is compelling and accessible if not brief – 375 pages plus 125 pages of footnotes and bibliography. I’m reminded of the Malcolm Gladwell book’s I’ve enjoyed in recent years. But, this feels better constructed, less anecdotal and more rigorous. Written in three parts Haidt outlines in his introduction the key idea of each section.
1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
3. Morality binds and blinds. 
Each part is illustrated by a central metaphor. Each image is easy to understand and illustrates the point clearly. Take note fellow communicators! And consider the message of each of them too...
1. An elephant and its rider – the rider is influential for where we go, but the elephant more so. Influencing the rider is important, but more so the elephant...
2. Tastebuds – our moral decisions are shaped by our ‘tastes’ – six foundations. Appeal to tastes people don't have and they wont bite...
3. Our human chimpishness and beeness. A hive mentality is part of being human. We form communities. Essentially to emphasise our groupishness and the way that the groups we're part of shape and strengthen our beliefs, and even the importance of an in-group to improve our attitude to those who aren't part of our group.
Lots to ponder from these observations alone, before getting into the detail!

When people "don't get" what we're saying how much is that because we were speaking to the rider not the elephant, that we hit the wrong tastebuds, or from the strong influence of their community... how could we convey the same message but to the elephant, to a different tastebud, and how much might community influence. What's the place of the inter-relation between believing, belonging and behaving (or "doing", as Haidt's diagram on p291 has it)?

My basic assumptions, religiously differ from Haidt's atheist/Jewish background though politically we both lean left. What’s fresh for me is his desire to understand where the two branches of right (libertarian / social conservative) are coming from and to value the perspectives of others.

I can’t always be bothered to do that, and I’m challenged by Haidt’s own journey and his scholarship to work harder.

He quotes the secret of Henry Ford’s success: 
the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own. 
Haidt applies this, self-consciously to the way he writes early on in the book (p59-60), in his use of stories, to deliberately address our intuitive elephant rather than shooting first for our reasoning rider. His professional experience means he's excellent at painting scenarios that probe deeply and bring out what we think and feel and believe.

Reading Haidt I find an interpretative grid falling over my facebook feed. I was reading it during the week Martin McGuinness died and Haidt made sense of the varied responses my friends made. See also status updates and tweets about US politics or the triggering of Article 50...

I’m querying my own views too.
How have I come to these convictions?
Why do I hold them? What shaped them?
What are the unintended consequences of my views?
Who do I need to learn from?
What might I discover?

I feel the need to go back over some sections to dig into the detail because the book delivers on its blurb claim that this “book will help you to understand your fellow human beings as never before.” The book doesn’t give a complete understanding of humanity – how could it? But I hope it will help me to be more diligent in seeking to understand others.