Tag Archives: Christianity

Native Tongue

Today Switchfoot are back from their (thankfully, in hindsight, hilariously short) hiatus with their eleventh full album, Native Tongue. I was treated to an advance preview as a volunteer music reviewer a couple of months ago, so I wanted to offer my personal review in addition to the official review I had published:

Put aside any preconceived ideas about what Switchfoot are about, or you will miss the point.

They’ve been around long enough they don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

Continuing what they started on ‘Where The Light Shines Through’ but taking it to new levels, this is a playful, creative, and highly accomplished exploration of sound. Every Switchfoot album is distinct in style, but this one promised a sonically disparate collection of songs and it certainly delivers! Influences on show span Queen, The Beatles, Coldplay and the White Stripes, the music of the Pacific islands, Celtic fringes and southern Africa, gospel, hair rock, hiphop, EDM and synth-rock, alongside styles they’ve already made fully their own, and full-on guitar solos nestle amongst layers of brass and strings. With WTLST they had experimented with different styles a little, let their influences show through here and there, and finally begun to show off their solo and improvisational skills a little, something they do effortlessly live but had always held back in the studio. But this takes that creative and experimental approach up a gear or two.

So let’s go:

The songs

The massive Let It Happen erupts euphorically over the soul in dramatic fashion. On the whole, the feel evokes 90s Britpop (something akin to The Verve); this is my era, my sound, and the passion it oozes brings me to tears of pleasure every time. And yet, they have worked into it a full-on Queen-esque solo!! I think they stole Brian May. Jon’s vocals are stunningly powerful as he voices our fears and anxieties yet entreats us to embrace the chaos and live in the now, as, paraphrasing Jesus, worrying about the future will not change it. This song has arrived in my life with perfect timing, the message exactly what I need as I feel myself walking into a new year that is going to shake my whole world up in many ways.

Let It Happen is followed by the similarly dramatic, infectious, drum-driven title track. Its message of remembering our origins in childlike love and acceptance is echoed by the tribal feel of the sound. The danceable beat gives way unexpectedly to a quietly moody outro, evoking the best of their b-side work. The message is good, but here is my concern – don’t we all think we are motivated by love? None of us identify as ‘the haters’. We just differ in our views of love. And when someone seems to be attacking your view of love, you get defensive, hence our divisions. Telling us to love is not sufficient; we need to learn to listen across those divides to understand the love position of The Other somehow… I have to listen in context of what I have heard Switchfoot speak about more explicitly about listening to one another across our divides and working from our common ground to fully understand what they mean here. It’s all too easy to simply extol the virtues of being nice to those we come into contact with, whilst shying away from politics because it is difficult, thus allowing the terrible things happening in our world go ahead unchallenged. Taken alone, I fear this song could reinforce that idea, but in context of Switchfoot’s example of trying to listen to and understand The Other before jumping in with our own views, I know it’s much bigger.

Next we reach the beating heart of the album – the beautiful, soulful, spiritual All I Need. The vocals here are gorgeous, and there is a bit of a Celtic feel to the melody (though not the sound, which is big-production Switchfoot). Developing the theme of what really matters in life previously explored in If The House Burns Down Tonight, the song forms the unifying thesis of the album around which the other songs seem to hang. Its central heart-on-sleeve question feels exposed and vulnerable.

After this, the edgy, bass-driven hiphop of Voices changes up the sound again. It explores anxiety, especially in a world with lots of information and opinions jostling for our attention, and how we are all so full of ‘voices’ of our own on the inside too, all our doubts and insecurities that can so fill our heads when our minds are not well. I will be honest, though I like it enough, this track low-level irritates me – but there has been at least one on every album and to a greater or lesser extent I always get over it*! I spent a while trying to think what it reminds me of, and eventually hit on it – Justin Timberlake!! Sorry. 😀 But the backing harmonies are lovely, and the use of a ticking clock sound at one point is spot on, and soundwise it does connect back to earlier work, most notably parts of Vice Verses. The song was released back in November, and the music video is a work of art that adds so much to the song itself, really bringing all its angst to the fore and lifting the music. It manages to be poignant, creepy and humorous all at once, and is really visually creative.

Dig New Streams sounds uncannily like it escaped from the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s** and somehow found its way to Switchfoot, quirky, trippy, and packed with awesome riffs, solos and changes of pace and time. It’s so accurate it made me laugh out loud in amazement that they could have pulled this off! I need to live with these lyrics a little more, but I hear Jesus again, this time throwing a lifeline to those hurt by our religion, and it’s certainly the most original of the album.

Joy Invincible’s soft vocals are luscious. This track has an electronic vibe, a huge sonic soundscape that would fill a club, and nice guitarwork under the ending. It’s very moving, and I would love to know the back story.

It leads nicely into the raw and passionate Prodigal Soul. A raw, acoustic opening becomes full band plus strings; it feels vulnerable, and a bit Coldplay, as Jon finds himself identifying with the homecoming son of Jesus’ famous parable.

Next stop on this musical mystery tour is the full-on EDM of The Hardest Art, blending elements of 80s electronica with bang-up-to-date synth rock – and do I detect a touch of Abba?! Guest vocalist Kaela Sinclair takes the second verse, and for just a moment as their voices join together in a gorgeous acoustic interlude there are echoes of Jon’s solo work. The repeated refrain ‘the hardest art is love is surrender is love is the hardest art’ is stirringly anthemic and I cannot help singing it out. And then, something uniquely precious to my ears – the track closes with a touch of soaring guitar that sounds remarkably like Stu G (think the close of Delirious?’s Obsession)! I have goosebumps…

The deliciously laid-back, piano dominated Wonderful Feeling comes next, another track strongly influenced by The Beatles, particularly with its unconventional chord progressions and build up. Jon’s vocals are incredible once again, as again he demonstrates seemingly effortless vocal control, moving back and forth between forceful expression and pretty falsetto, and we are also given another guitar solo, this time more in the relaxed style of George Harrison.

And then another twist, as the unexpected, heavy, headbanging riff of Take My Fire crashes in. Jon’s voice now sounds classic-rock rugged, and though you can tell Hendrix isn’t far away, this is definitely born of the White Stripes’ school of 21st-century rock. The bluesy feel and spiritual theme also made me think of Verra Cruz, another of my favourite bands but too little known to be an influence.

All jangling guitars and lush harmonies in 6/8, The Strength To Let Go has a Celtic, folky thing going on again, but again this is big-production, big-sound CCM. By the time we reach the heartfelt ‘I am lightning and You are the ground!’ it really feels like a Rend Collective classic! But we are treated to a little ‘ha!’ of Jon’s early on, which I couldn’t help but smile on hearing.

Oxygen is a vulnerable and gentle soft rock ballad featuring slide guitar. It’s left me wondering where such a powerful break up song has come from, especially as it so accurately captures the unreal sensation of losing something (or someone) you had come to depend on, but it’s a tear jerker that is going to hold close folks going through loss and break up.

We’re Gonna Be Alright follows, blending global musical influences and an immensely fun bass riff in a similar vein to When Was The Last Time (minus the arcade game midi), and definitely recalling Michael Franti both in style and content. Appropriately for a piece about reassurance, the vocals have the intimate quality of a father whispering into the ear of a child. You can’t help but feel it. I hope this makes it into their live sets; I can see it already, everyone clapping along and singing the chorus together.

You’re The One I Want closes this eclectic album with a simple piano and cello love song; it feels like it connects right back to The Legend Of Chin somehow even in the vocal style, but now everything has grown up – a resolution of the early relationship angst, a certainty, a maturity of understanding, and the grungy vocals of a song like You have mellowed into this soft warmth.

The production throughout Native Tongue is stunning, the sound layered and full, every element carefully placed, and it sounds made for vinyl.

My perspective

I think after three albums now I can finally state that Jon’s writing style has changed; prior to this I would not want to have called a change where he could merely have been experimenting with something different, especially without any sort of timeline given for The Wonderlands songs, many of which are typically deeply layered, poetic and philosophical in keeping with Jon’s previous and well known style. But that aside, we’ve seen very little of that since Vice Verses now, and I doubt we’re in for any more gravitational entropy waves. There’s still depth to his themes, and his intellect and prophetic gift are still in evidence, but his writing is so much simpler, more straight-up, and his focus has shifted to rhyme and to creating anthems a crowd can sing out together. Native Tongue, like Fading West and WTLST, is dominated by the strongly-rhyming, hiphop-influenced songwriting that has characterised much of his recent work.

It’s very much a Christian album, the story of a ‘prodigal soul’ finding home in the love of God. Themes from the Gospels shine through strongly, as does the real-life journey of an artist who has spent 20 years wrestling with a sense of being far from home and out of place finally discovering home, both spiritually and in a very earthly sense with his own family. In this respect it feels very introspective and focussed on close personal relationships with family and God, rather than looking outwards to the wider context of our lives in the world.

It’s also their least angsty album to date, lacking their usual lyrical bite, which in such truly angsty times I find a bit hard to swallow. There’s much that will appeal to the American church here, and little to challenge it. With no space given for lament or any encouragement to take a stand it’s not speaking to the current climate for me, but perhaps I haven’t arrived yet myself? Or perhaps it simply underlines the difference between my truth-to-power approach and Switchfoot’s approach of bringing people together into a safe space, both of which are valid and needed in these times.

Perhaps there’s no way back from here and this sense of home to the kind of songwriting that wrestles with the depths – but nor do I wish it on Jon, as I know he’s written those angstier songs from painful experience and he sounds like being in a good place now. That genuinely gives me joy. The songs are clearly written from the heart and I would rather they continue to do that than to write the sort of songs I would have them write. They don’t owe me anything! And these lyrics will doubtless push and challenge me in new ways and find different parts of my life to embed in, just as Let It Happen is doing already.

But they are home. It’s very much a celebration of that.

And it’s all about the music; they certainly can’t be accused of stagnation or of selling themselves short in any way, they’ve thrown it all in there. The range of styles is going to divide opinion, but there’s little doubt it’s a musical masterpiece. In my ‘official’ review I rated it 9/10; this is because although I truly mean that, and it’s perfectly produced (without being overdone, which they’ve been guilty of at times in the past), the range of styles is going to be too broad to appeal to everyone. And it doesn’t have so much in the way of the thought-provoking lyrics I fell in love with Switchfoot for, so I can’t see it being an album I personally live and breathe, that becomes a part of me and helps me engage with the world in the same way as most of their work to date.

For me, it feels a little like listening to the Fiction Family album rather than Switchfoot (though I must emphasise that the sound is still very much Switchfoot not Fiction Family!) – even aside from the fact that that’s previously been Jon’s outlet for his Beatlesier side, it’s musically brilliant but I don’t connect so deeply with most of the lyrics, and you just don’t know what they’re going to pull out next, it’s full of surprises! I feel like that’s where it will sit for me, being enjoyed obsessively when I’m in the right frame of mind for something a bit eclectic as with Fiction Family, rather than being chewed over regularly and meditated upon like a typical Switchfoot album. Because of this I’ve found it hard to rate relative to their other albums. I think I’d say I like it better than Fading West (though that one has such a feel-good sunshiney vibe it probably has the highest play!), though quite a bit less than WTLST, which gave me favourite song after favourite song and, though had its evident influences, simply sounded like Switchfoot showing their own versatility.

I am wowed by their soloing on this album – but they do so here largely in the style of other artists. So whilst they reveal their skills to an impressive extent, we still haven’t had much from the studio of Jon and Drew’s own original mighty improvisational solo styles, which so captivate us live. They remain an elusive treat for those of us who get to see them on stage! But they leave you in no doubt here of their capability. Go see them live if you get the chance!

Bringing in very strong elements of other artists’ sounds also runs the risk for me of triggering my low replay tolerance for many of these other artists, who I can enjoy from time to time in small doses but who will quickly begin to grate on my nerves if I play them too much. Switchfoot have never yet made anything that doesn’t become irritating on repeat for me, and that’s unique, but that has possibly relied on them sounding entirely like themselves.

That said, however many elements they have borrowed from other artists, it’s still very much Switchfoot. Every track has its roots in earlier material somewhere I can trace it back to, and however diverse these songs are they certainly don’t feel disconnected from previous albums. Nor do the tracks feel disconnected from each other. Diverse they may be, but it feels as deliberately crafted as I know it was, every track standing in sharp contrast to its neighbours. And though the sound changes constantly, the lyrical themes are very consistent, perhaps more so than ever, which considering Switchfoot have always crafted albums around strong themes is impressive.

And it really is a joy; I’m very proud of them and glad they’ve finally made this collection, something they’ve hinted at doing for some time now. It’s great to hear what they have been capable of all along. It’s a homecoming.

 

*It’s happening already; M came home the other night to find me playing it loud and stomping round the kitchen to it, so I think it’s winning! 😀

**M says Abbey Road. He is quite correct. 😀 😀

 

Advertisements

Living with thorns

Last month I was invited to take part in a teaching series my church has been running on mental health. Each session had looked at a different aspect of mental health from the perspectives of scripture, a mental health professional, and a testimony from a church member. I was invited to be the testimony for the session on depression.

I was actually very excited to speak about this, as being open about my mental health is really important to me personally and in terms of creating a space for others to talk about it too. You can listen to the whole teaching slot here (search for ‘Living With Thorns’), featuring myself and a therapist from the congregation being interviewed by the preacher as part of the talk, but here is my testimony itself:

Interview:

In your darkest moments what is it like for you to live with depression?

I found this first question a bit difficult as I’ve had two experiences of depression, one severe in my teens and before I became a Christian (I was actually spontaneously healed when I fist met Jesus!), and more recently a spell of mild depression, mainly through 2016, though I’m still very much walking through recovery from that now, it can be a bit of a process. So the lows are all very much past tense, and day-to-day now it is pretty mundane. Maybe that’s helpful to note in itself?

Depression takes many forms. Back in my teens I had severe depression and it manifested in suicidal thoughts, hopelessness and emotional numbness. My recent, mild, illness has been more like a crushing lack of energy and motivation and a tendency to feel so overwhelmed it paralyses me, only occasionally spilling over into low mood. But it’s all the same illness, it presses down on you as a heavy weight. For me, recently, the bad days have felt like a spiral out of control; my thoughts assail me so heavily it feels like being beaten round the head and knocked down. Thoughts of failure, of not being enough, of inadequacy, and on top of that, of all the myriad things I ‘should’ be doing, and you can imagine how upsetting is would be to have someone have that sort of rant at you – it’s like that, I break down in tears and can’t easily separate out what really needs to be done now from all those ‘should’s under the weight of it all. So – I get stuck, end up lying on the sofa, having an uphill battle to even make myself drink a glass of water…

So that’s the worst of the current beast I live with! Most days now it just manifests as a lack of energy, a frustratingly low burn-out point, despite my hope and joy and love of life.

But the darkest I’ve known previously has felt like absolute hopelessness. It is dark and terrifying to be unable to see any hope or potential for change. Depression can lie so convincingly that there is no hope it feels like an objective fact that no-one else could ever possibly understand from outside. But having come out the other side I can tell you it is a lie, and that there absolutely is always hope, in God’s big picture that is bigger than us and our lives if nothing more, and as long as you are breathing you can live for that and be part of it.

We know you have faith in Jesus so could you tell us what it is like to follow Jesus through depression?

Positives and negatives; because my illness lies to me it can be harder to hang onto the truth, I easily find myself projecting my own insecurities onto God (ie in my case I first realised I wasn’t well when I noticed I was starting to wonder if God had a place for me or had just made me ‘for decoration’ without a real purpose in God’s plan… in truth, finding my place and purpose is not easy. I’m struggling with that myself. But that’s not God!). Faith is also potentially an area I can beat myself up over, for example when I want to read the Bible but don’t for whatever reason – it’s normal I think to feel bad about that, but when depression weighs in on it it can feel really bad (I can start telling myself I’m a bad Christian…).

On the other hand, I’m more aware of my need for God, even if God feels distant or silent sometimes. Sometimes God has felt extremely close in the silence. And there’s been something special and important about giving God some very raw prayers, rants, tears… Sometimes, when things have felt very dark and I’ve lost hope for myself, I’ve seen God’s light and the big-picture hope of God’s Kingdom coming shine so strongly in contrast to it that it takes my breath away! Without the dark I couldn’t see how strong and bright that hope is. That’s been very good for me. So too has seeing God using my experiences to help others – that’s been an incredible honour and I know God’s been using me there.

What were the best and worst parts of being part of church during times of depression?

It’s made me flaky (even in recovery!). I struggle to commit to things, have to take things one day at a time, pull out of things if I don’t feel up to it (I can easily get overwhelmed, I’ve less capacity, and things get on top of me easier), and can struggle with motivation (ie to go out, or to do certain things). All this makes it very hard to get more actively involved in church, and get to know people and become part of the community (it makes it very hard to arrange to see friends too…). That in itself can feed back into the illness as it doesn’t feel good. Church/homegroup is particularly hard if it feels like everyone else is doing fine and has their life in order! On the other hand church/homegroup can be a supportive and safe environment and somewhere I can get out the house and most importantly seek God and truth.

What helps you to cope?

Talking about it. Depression thrives on secrecy, but getting it out in the open lessens its grip, whilst also helping you to find help and support from others, solidarity with others also going through it that helps you feel less alone, and also helps you find others you can walk alongside too.

Prayer. Honesty before God. God is big enough to handle our rawest emotions, let it all out.

Self care. It’s not an easy ‘just do this and you won’t be depressed’, but it genuinely does help to be more intentional about things like exercise, healthy eating, socialising, doing things you enjoy(ed) of find/found relaxing.

Work. Having a job with a lot of structure and regular hours, and supportive colleagues and a good mental health and wellbeing culture, really, really helps.

Perspective. I need the big picture hope narrative of the Bible to pull me out of myself and keep reminding me that whatever happens in my lifetime, God’s Kingdom is coming and love wins.

Therapy. I’ve been to a CBT course, it felt frustratingly like being taught how to walk – but if I’d had a debilitating accident and lost the full use of my legs I would need just that, so why expect different of my injured mind? It’s been helpful. I’ve also been seeing a counsellor to try tackling my underlying issues.

Switchfoot! I’m only semi-joking; admittedly I am a megafan of theirs and was already before I got ill, however, the work of Christian artists who are grappling with this stuff can be a real help and support. Switchfoot is one such band and certainly do a lot for me, but there are other musicians and other forms of artists whose work explores depression and mental illness at times, and I recommend finding artists who can give words to what you’re experiencing and point you towards hope.

Here’s the vid of the interview that we recorded as a back-up in case I couldn’t speak in person on the day (featuring a feline cameo!).


If you’re struggling, or just not feeling quite right, please do try to get help – it isn’t always straightforward, but help, and hope, are out there. For a start, try this if you are in the UK, and this might be useful wherever you are.

Implicit worship

Fake News Of The Week amongst the Switchfam was this satirical article from the Babylon Bee, ‘Switchfoot release implicit worship album’.

It provoked mixed reactions – but I have to admit, I laugh-snorted!  The article does have a dig at Jon’s writing style – it’s fair enough, except that he’s a lot more versatile and varied than is implied – but the classier dig is at the likes of me, who actually really get a lot out of that sort of songwriting. It’s bang on, and a proper ‘ouch!’.

The piece actually nailed so much of what I love about Switchfoot. And that got me thinking, why is that? I’m passionate about worship, yet this article shows me that ‘implicit worship’ is something I’m really behind. ‘Implicit worship’ sounds like a bad thing. Shouldn’t our worship be explicit? Shouldn’t we be saying it like we mean it? Are we not..? Here’s where my thoughts led me:

Firstly, I think we are. Being explicit is good and there’s a place for that, and you’ll find it within Switchfoot’s repertoire as well as in my own life.

But worship is more than singing praise songs. Worship is whole life. It would quickly become dry and meaningless if all we did were state our praise in words, especially in words that had been said many times before to the point of cliche, just as we do not live our personal relationships entirely through love songs. Worship cannot be words alone. Music helps it to stir our emotions, but that in itself is not enough. Worship must touch our whole lives, turn around our entire way of life. We need to be able to bring the whole of life and experience to God, engage with God there, allow ourselves to be challenged and changed and reshaped and motivated to act, and then go out and live it in God’s general direction. Simply singing ‘I love You Jesus’ songs has its place, but will not fulfil that whole purpose. Those songs I will use in church when we all need to be able to sing something simple together, and in moments when that is exactly what I need to express, but are not the sorts of songs I carry with me day to day, that help me work out how to be a better follower of Jesus in the everyday situations I find myself facing. They are not the songs that stretch and broaden my understanding and deepen my awe of God. For me, Switchfoot’s music takes me to those deeper places, the places that help me wrestle life and faith together and work through how to walk it out in the world I’m living in.

Implicit worship. Worship that involves the trajectory of my life, not merely my words. It’s precisely why someone like myself will connect more with songs of the sort the article pokes fun at, such as Stars, than with their more straightforwardly ‘explicit’ material, like new single You Found Me. They are the songs that go deep in my life, that I walk with over the years, that make me think, and change me, slowly, into something a little more Christlike, as they help me figure out what a faithful response to the world I live in might look like. Switchfoot’s music won’t do that for everyone, if it’s not to your taste or the way you think, but it does for many of us who connect with it.

And music has a purpose beyond explicit praise too, even for Christians believe it or not. And that’s an important factor to understanding the Foremans’ ethos. Switchfoot’s aim is not to be a church worship band. They are artists, making the music that expresses what is on their hearts, purely for the sake of that authentic expression. Music has value in itself. Its value is not just in ‘worship’ music. That is no higher or more spiritual than any other music. Music helps us to make sense of the big stuff, where we can turn with the things we don’t understand. Where we can experience feeling, and mystery, and wonder. That is as important to the Christian journey as singing praise songs, if not more so, and God, and good, can be found in any kind of music or art, labelled ‘Christian’ or otherwise. There is more to the human existence to experience and express than just the religious bits, and God wants to be involved in it all. We are made creative beings in God’s image, so simply using our creative capacity for any artistic expression is itself a godly act. God does not need to be excluded if we choose to use that art to express say our romantic feelings for another person or our frustration with politics or struggles with depression for example. God is present. And in music we can explore how to handle those situations faithfully. That too is worship, lived out.

So ‘implicit worship’ need not be a negative. It’s not about being ashamed or embarrassed of Jesus. Switchfoot are more than happy to speak openly about their faith and to publicly call themselves Christians, as am I. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk openly about Jesus at all we’d certainly have a problem. So too if I thought Switchfoot were trying to hide their faith to gain popularity amongst non-Christians. But that’s not their game. Theirs is just a different approach to both music and to worship than that of a ‘worship band’. Their calling is to make honest music. ‘Worship’ is not explicitly their aim, any more than it is mine when I go to work. Yet every day on my way to the office I’m praying for God to use me and my work that day. I’m not about to start a praise party in the office, and neither should we expect it of Switchfoot just because music is involved, but it is all worship nonetheless.

I don’t want my worship to be limited to the occasions I am singing praise songs. I want my whole life to imply worship. And long may there be music in our lives that moves us to live that way!

RefuJesus

I woke up this morning, looked at my phone, and saw social media flooded with the growing storm over asylum seekers’ children being taken from their families in the USA and detained in cages.

Opening my email, I found a second response from my MP to my letter about the treatment of detainees in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre here in the UK; he sent me the response of the Immigration Minister, in which she claims the government’s good intentions to treat people fairly and respectfully are in fact reality, contrary to the evidence pouring in from the detainees themselves.

We’re also in the middle of a campaign, spearheaded by Lord Dubs who himself came to the UK as a child refugee in the second world war, to persuade the UK government to do more for today’s vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees and take in 10,000 of them over the coming decade, echoing our wartime response.

Meanwhile, thousands of desperate people are still piling into unsafe boats and attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to try to find safety in Europe, many dying in the attempt.

My Bible reading plan this morning happened to bring me to Matthew 2, in which I read how Joseph had to get up in the night and flee over the border into Egypt with the baby Jesus and his mother Mary to escape king Herod’s attempt to kill the child, and how the young family had to remain in the foreign country’s sanctuary until after Herod’s death before being able to return. Like so many today, they wouldn’t have been able to fill in a visa application first…

And it happens to be World Refugee Day. This year it seems a bigger global issue than ever.

According to Safe Passage this week, there are currently 68 million displaced people in the world, of whom 24 million are refugees. 82% are in developing countries. Over half of these people are children.

Refugees are those who have had to flee for their lives due to some form of fear of persecution. Asylum is an international process whereby those who have to escape their country can claim protection from that persecution in another country. Usually, this is the neighbouring country to their own. Because, like Jesus’ family, people are often having to flee in an emergency, it is not only legal under international law but vital that they are able to enter that other country for the sole purpose of claiming asylum without the necessary documentation that would otherwise be required, and they must claim asylum on arrival. There is then a process within that country to determine if asylum should be granted.

In addition, many people emigrate from their home countries. This happens for a variety of reasons, including for work, family or a simple change of scene, but many are also in desperate circumstances such as crushing poverty.

Probably my biggest fear when it comes to climate change is not that we may lose iconic species like polar bears, as appalling as that would be. No, my biggest fear has long been the borders going up, as more and more people find themselves under pressure to move, either directly because of resource wars or increasing natural disasters, or indirectly as the world becomes more unstable or they find their livelihoods less profitable. I fear this becoming an increased driver of refugees and migration, and that the response of countries like ours that are less affected by these pressures will be to close our borders. Alas, I’m seeing it happening already, along with rising xenophobia and fracturing of non-military international cooperation. I fear the sort of world this will create, where desperate people will have to be kept at bay by force, and will likely respond with terrorism, as desperate people so often do, fuelling a hateful vicious cycle. It’s not a world I want to live in.

Although the vast majority of displaced people are either moving within their own countries or to neighbouring countries, the figures are still shocking. The default position when faced with increasing numbers of people attempting to enter the country either as refugees or migrants seems to be ‘How do we keep numbers down? How do we keep them out? How can we get rid of them?’

What about if we took the time to ask why they come?

I can understand that we on the ‘right’ side of a border want to hang on to the benefits of our position. We feel entitled to the privileges we experience as a result of being born in a safe and prosperous country, despite our place of birth being pure serendipity, not something we have earned ourselves. That entitlement is strange framed like that – but then, a desire for safety and prosperity is no bad thing, and when we have it, it’s no bad thing to want to hang onto it. It only becomes problematic when we don’t want to extend that to others.

I suspect we have more capacity to help than we think we do, but we are still not infinite. We can’t take in the world. But surely the real solution is not to harden our hearts and strengthen our borders, clinging to what we have and shutting out anyone else, but to extend humanity and generosity as far as possible whilst working to tackle the causes of movement, the war, persecution, poverty, that drives it?

As long as we live in an unequal world there will be net movement from more disadvantaged and dangerous places to places of safety and opportunity, either because people have to flee for their lives from the former, or because they will choose to migrate to the latter. Not many will be moving the opposite way.

I dream of a more equal world. For now, we really need to extend mercy, compassion, fairness and kindness to those who come to us and treat them with human dignity, even if some must be turned away, especially considering the horrors and hardships so many have endured and escaped to get here. But long term, I dream of a truly free world. We need to work to understand and end the things that are forcing people from their homes, the war, poverty, persecution and climate change, and work towards a world where all countries are equally safe and prosperous, where people can be free to move as they please, where there is no net movement of people because as many people are moving in one direction as in the other, and there are no refugees. We need to build other countries up, rather than shutting our doors and building up ourselves. That’s ambitious, but surely we are capable of that if we try? Wouldn’t that be what true progress looks like?

Meanwhile, Jesus stands on the ‘wrong’ side of all our borders – with the poor, the refugee, the persecuted, and with those working for them, suffering with them. When we welcome others, we welcome God. Is God truly welcome here, or are we ‘full’? Can we expand our hearts’ borders? I fear that if we don’t, as well as seeing an increasingly dangerous and divided world, it is Christ Himself we will be shutting out.

White Sky Church

One I wrote back in 2013 under similar skies and frustrations…

 

Oh! What to do with this world?

Some day these white skies have got to break

Black or blue

The haze that obscures You

As if the world would think we never knew You

Let the dark clouds gather

Deep convection of our souls

Finally do some good for this dried-up Earth

Oh! What to do with us?

Don’t let us off

Average as the concrete sky

 

 

Liturgy in the waves

Whilst I’ve been quiet on the blog, I’ve got really into bodyboarding this warm sea season.

I’ve been having an occasional go for about five years now, but this is the first time it’s really got hold of me. My previous attempts were embarrassingly laughable. I’ve joked that I spent more time clinging to the underside of the board , thinking I’m sure this isn’t how it’s supposed to work and wondering what went wrong, than actually riding on top of it! And I was only half joking; upside-down boards happened far too frequently! I was scared of any waves approaching my own size or bigger. I couldn’t read the sea so waves would rear up and take me by surprise. My attempts at catching them were complete trial and error, launching at waves of any stage of formation and just hoping I didn’t fall off if I happened to time it right. And most of the times, I did fall off! But it was so much fun when I did catch one – even if at some point down the beach I did end up on the wrong side of the board.

This summer we had two consecutive weekends away in good surf spots with different sets of friends who wanted to spend time bodyboarding. Over those two weekends we had five whole days catching waves, and although I had boasted of my unfortunate talent for upside-down waveriding, I was surprised to find I was actually staying on top of the board. What’s more, over the five days, I found I was making a lot of discoveries and truly learning something each day. By the end of the first weekend I was reading the waves, knowing when to launch, and catching the majority of the waves I attempted… and pushing out further into the larger waves further out too. I learnt how to choose a good wave, how to steer, how to angle the board, and how the waves change in mood, power and difficulty from beach to beach, day to day, tide to tide. Of course I developed a new special talent for overshooting the board when launching out and sliding right over the top, and once or twice found myself barrelled head over heels under a massive breaker, momentarily wondering how I was going to escape, but on the whole it’s been going great.

I’ve been out boarding several times since to take advantage of the nice autumn sea temperatures and quieter beaches. I’ve officially got the bug!

So, is it play? Is it therapy? Or is it worship?

I think it’s definitely all three, but the mix varies depending on where the sea and I are at. It began as pure play, but it’s been healing at times too, and I’ve started to find it can be an act of worship.

A couple of Sundays ago I was in Wales with fiends. We spent the morning celebrating Harvest at St David’s Cathedral, and then went down to Whitesands Bay for the afternoon. Wowww!! I was already feeling celebratory and full of joy and thankfulness as a result of the Harvest service, but the place was so stunning and the waves so beautiful and glittery it all just overflowed. The worship on the beach felt like a seamless continuation of the worship in church.

First of all, it is nearly impossible not to bodyboard in a state of mindfulness. All the senses are involved, and you have to pay attention to what is immediately going on around you and be immersed completely in the moment, fully awake to where you are and what you are doing. You smell the sea air; your eyes feast on the colours, light, contrast, drama and movement of the sea and sky and wildlife and other beachgoers; there’s no avoiding the taste of saltwater; you hear the hiss, fizz, and roar of the waves, and your own laughter and whooping; and you feel all the textures of the sea, the sting of salt, and of cold water on hot skin, the feel of the board, soft sand, rough stones, the sometimes violent slap of waves, gentle rising and falling, warmth, wet… In the sea I am really in the now, and it is incredibly centring.

At risk of sounding clichéd, it is something like baptism with every wave or spray that breaks over me, reminding me of what is washed away and blessing me with new life.

It’s a humbling experience. In the sea I get the smallest glimpse of the size and power of its maker, and my contrasting insignificance. It’s amazing to be out in nature, surrounded by this huge unknown, unpredictable, power, tumbled about in it, but to be able to play in its edges and get to know it a little nonetheless.

I find myself full of thankfulness! It’s a grace experience, an undeserving land creature immersed in such beauty and laughter that’s completely not my own element, and seeing waves presented to me as perfect curls to play with. At its most beautiful I can never believe I’m experiencing it. Every good wave finishes in hallelujah, thank You, as it brings me to rest on the beach. More often than not I find I fetch up in a prayer posture, on my knees or face down at the edge of the surf, and thanking the sea and our God just flows, before I get up and run back in. It comes naturally, but I’ve also begun to make a conscious discipline of turning to say thank You for every good ride, as it develops in me a lasting attitude of thankfulness.

There are moments of quiet contemplative solitude…  and then there are moments of shared joy when catching the same wave, high fiving and cheering at each other’s good waves, and teaching one another skills.

At the end of a good beach day I come away full of joy, re-set, with a bigger, truer perspective on our size and significance compared to our beautiful world and the one it comes from. I am reminded so much how good the world can be, and that for all its problems, that is only ever part of the reality and there is still so much to enjoy and celebrate. We get immersed in the big news of the day, and forget that we are transient, and that some things are that much bigger and better and more lasting than we are. The sea brings me back to that truth.

I come home with waves in my mind, still feeling the rise and fall of the swell, the sea still alive before me every time I close my eyes.

Bodyboarding is no substitute for church. That day at Whitesands was made all the more meaningful following on from a service, and a service of thanksgiving in particular. But it can definitely be a powerful, playful worship experience, as the formal liturgy of church finds its way into the everyday world, and I hope I never lose that.

Chasing the wind?

I read the book of Ecclesiastes this summer. If you’re not familiar with it, it is the musings of an old ‘Philosopher’ on life; what satisfies, what is the point of it all? He tries to make sense of life, and what the purpose of both life itself and its pleasures are, given its brevity, the randomness of chance, and the fact that, taking the long view in his eyes, everything comes around again in an endless cycle in which nothing lasts. ‘Everything is meaningless, like chasing the wind’. He speaks with great wisdom, and yet I found myself debating with him as I read.

It occurred to me I’m thinking like the Philosopher, and not in a good way; in the long, slow recovery from the depression that has knocked back my energy for activism, if not my desire to see things change, I’m starting to succumb to the feeling that everything has happened before and will happen again, it all comes around again and nothing makes a difference. And then as I try to nurse myself, I find I am just trying to ‘feed’ myself, give myself the things I want, as if that could satisfy, and finding unsurprisingly that it doesn’t.

The Philosopher blows back and forth on this, on the one hand saying it’s useless as chasing the wind, on the other that enjoying what we have is all we can and should do.

But is that true?

I think adding Jesus to the equation changes everything. In Him there is a bigger narrative of hope and direction. There is eternity. Everything is headed somewhere. There will be justice – beyond the timeframes of our lives. Which side of that we choose to stand on now matters, not because we can change the endless cycles of rise and fall in this world in our lives, but because He sees it, and is honoured and assisted, or dishonoured and hindered, in His work by our actions and inactions in all things.

Recently at church the speaker preached on the whole book! Their conclusion was similar, that you need Jesus to complete the picture. The service was focussed on wisdom, rather than any other aspect of the book, but it took a similar course. The Philosopher points out that wisdom does not guarantee success, and asks what the point is, and yet concludes that it is still the best way to live and enjoy life. And yet wisdom is personified in Jesus; without Him, there is a hole in the logic. Why live wisely if it doesn’t bring us any benefits, except to know and please the one who is Wisdom?

The speakers made a big deal of how ‘depressing’ the book is to keep emphasising the reality of death. But isn’t this an important, and even life-giving, perspective, a wake-up call to remind us to actually remember to live whilst we have time? It is good and healthy to look at the material and remember how transient we are. But the conclusion of that should not be that we can only consume it in the time we have, but that we need to find contentment. And more than that, we can do far more than simply enjoy what we have; we can actually use it to help others thrive. We are blessed to bless, given to to give. In this way we build something bigger and more lasting than anything merely material we could build and invest in here for ourselves.

Everything may well come around. The justice, peace and progress we work for may well never be seen in our lifetimes, and may be undone in the generations to come. It is important to remember that I cannot fix the world. Even small acts of good that I do may be undone again afterwards. Does that mean it is worthless? No, it is worth it if I can help others now nonetheless. It is not my own legacy that I’m working for, but God’s, not my own kingdom but the eternal Kingdom of God. Never let fatalism become an excuse for apathy! It matters now!

What struck me most from the church sermon was when we were told the meaning of the word translated as ‘meaningless’ – ‘hevel’. It means vapour, breath, smoke.  Real, but intangible, transient, hard to grasp, hard to hold onto. Life is like this. It isn’t meaningless, but we cannot hold on to it, or anything in it. We can enjoy them. We can live in the now. But the only solid, lasting thing we can build is the Kingdom of God, and making life more enjoyable for others.

This is the perspective that I need right now. I cannot truly care for myself and nurse myself back into health by simply feeding my desires, though a certain amount of that is no bad thing. It won’t actually satisfy; but blessing others will. And whilst I cannot fix the world, I can always look for the opportunities before me in all situations and take the baby  steps towards bringing in God’s Kingdom that will get me walking again with some direction.

Don’t try to run from what’s uncomfortable; look for what opportunities you’ve been given to do good, and take them. That will satisfy in a way that feeding our comfort and material desires never could. It will outlast us all.