Happy Birthday U2

I have a lot of time for Bono and I enjoy U2’s music, so I thought I’d say a few words to celebrate 40 years since their formation on 25 September 1976.

My first experience of the band was superficial, it was the early ’80s and while I was more in tune with the New Romantic movement, I became aware of this rock group producing pleasingly anthemic tunes accompanied by apparently meaningful lyrics. They remained in the background of the soundtrack of my life, occasionally bursting to the fore, for example with The Joshua Tree. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the spiritual message flowing through that album, but, oh my word, it was a great collection of songs.

As I look back at their career, I’m most impressed with the way they’ve managed to navigate the fine line between sacred and secular music, so that they can deliver the message of God’s love to millions of rock fans around the world who would otherwise never choose to listen to Christian music. Even the subtle message found in many of their songs can make an impact on the listener, who, if they choose to investigate further, will find a frontman in Bono who isn’t afraid to proclaim the gospel and his trust in Christ.

Sometimes the songs are explicit in their declaration of faith, while also acknowledging our brokenness and our need for salvation, like the two songs in this video.

 

You’ll find plenty of articles about U2 and their faith with a quick web search. Here’s one from Premier Christianity that was written in anticipation of their “birthday” and which traces how spiritual themes have been woven into their music over the years, far more eloquently than I could manage. For example,

When they reached number one in the US charts on 8th August 1987 with ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, radio stations across the world were ablaze with as succinct a theology of Christ’s cross as any hymn ever written: “You broke the bonds / And you loosed the chains / Carried the cross / Of my shame / You know I believe it.”

Remarkably, Christians missed the theological clout and actually wondered if the band members had lost their faith, distracted by the title. Philippians 3:12 is perhaps the biblical equivalent of what U2 were trying to say: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Please check out the links at the bottom of the Premier Christianity article for more evidence of a faithful and inspiring band.

Book Review – “Wise Guys” by Kent Evans (with Rob Suggs)

I’ll get straight to the point. This is a great book. I read it from start to finish in less than a day (unheard of for me), and then I immediately started reading it again.

Why couldn’t I drag myself away? Well, first of all it’s eminently readable. An easy, conversational tone draws you in. There are a few Americanisms along the way but I can forgive that – coming from an American author. Second, it starts rewarding you with titbits of wisdom right from the first chapter. No – earlier than that. Even during Kyle Idleman’s foreword I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is something I need to do!” And then that realization was reinforced throughout the following chapters, while I was also eagerly picking up life lessons – and being entertained to boot.

So, who are the “wise guys” of the title? They are ordinary people in the main, who happen to demonstrate a great way of thinking or behaving. And this book’s primary purpose is to encourage us to seek those people or, even better, recognise them in our daily lives; and then to learn from them, by observation and/or conversation.

It’s common sense – as is most of the finest wisdom. And most of what you learn as you read is really just reminding you of what you already know: be kind, ask questions, think before committing to a task, and so on. But these are truths that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis if we are to develop positive habits rather than destructive ones.

The book is autobiographical, but only vaguely chronological. In each chapter Kent Evans recounts an incident in his life, which may have lasted anything from a few minutes to several weeks. He recalls a man from whom he learned something about himself or about life. And he ends each chapter describing those lessons learned, and then offering some “questions to consider.” These questions really help you change the direction of your thoughts away from Kent’s life and towards your own, giving you an opportunity to reflect on where your growth potential lies. It’s a straightforward format, and it works brilliantly.

I want to make three final observations that I hope will encourage you to purchase this book even if looking at the cover and reading the précis doesn’t convince you that it will speak to you.

One: although written from a male perspective, it is equally relevant to women. The book is unashamedly man-oriented. The full title is “Wise Guys: Unlocking Hidden Wisdom from the Men Around You.” Women barely get a mention, except in the acknowledgements. But this is for the very good reason that there is some truth in the cliché that men are generally not good at asking for help. The book is targeting those men and speaking directly to them. But the wisdom contained within is completely applicable to women, and you are just as likely to find a female mentor as a male one, depending on the circles you move in. So ladies – buy this book!

Two: although written from a business perspective, it is equally relevant to life in general. Now I’m not sure that the author intended to write a “business manual,” but many of the situations he describes arise from his business experiences, and so many of the men he learns from are businessmen, and many of his lessons learned are learned in the business arena. But at the same time, at the very heart they are lessons about relating to other human beings – and relationship lessons are invaluable in any area of life. Perhaps another way to say it is: this book will help you learn how to succeed in life – but it will also help you learn how to succeed in business.

Three: although written from a Christian perspective, it is equally relevant to people of other faiths or none. There are a few Biblical references sprinkled throughout the book, and some of the wise guys have connections through Kent’s church family, but there is not even a hint of evangelism or proselytizing; only the recognition that some of the wisdom gleaned from successful mentors also reflects Christian values. Having said that, I do feel that many of the chapters could be used as the basis for very interesting small group discussions. But ultimately, whatever your worldview, you will enjoy and get value from this book.

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This book was provided to me courtesy of City on a Hill Studio and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Is That All There Is?

It’s not entirely surprising that our reaction to some artistic works changes with our worldviews. When I first heard this song, twenty or more years ago, I think my first thought was “hmm, a bit old-fashioned,” and then when I listened to the words, I found them sadly sweet, and because my life too felt sadly sweet, it struck a chord and became one of my favourite songs to chill to.

So it has remained on my playlist, but since finding Christ this is one of many songs I wonder about, thinking is it right for me to still connect with this. After all, the twin themes seem to be nihilism and hedonism, neither of which are exactly fruit of the Spirit.

 

Well, I can think of at least two reasons to value this song.

First, if it connected with me, then it will connect with others, and maybe it will help them, comfort them to know that there’s someone who saw things the same way they do. It’s a truth too easily forgotten in our darkest times, that “you are not alone, you’re not the only one who has felt like this.”

Second, a song like this challenges me to think about big questions, and talk about them like I’m about to do right here.

The song is actually based on a short story called “Disillusionment” by the German writer Thomas Mann. You can read it here. It is the story of a man for whom everything in life is a disappointment because nothing in the real world is ever as great, or as awful, as it is in his imagination. It is very dark, and like the song, it ends with the speculation that death itself will be the final, maybe the greatest, disappointment.

When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller adapted the story into a song, they added a chorus which suggests that as our imaginations and expectations can only lead to disillusion, we might as well stop worrying and just enjoy empty pleasures. In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die – a corrupted conflation of verses from two very different passages of scripture (Isaiah 22 and Ecclesiastes 8).

When I listened to this song a few days ago, it brought to mind quite a well known interview that Stephen Fry gave to Gay Byrne early last year. He starts his reply to the question about what he would say to God…

“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

There is much to be debated in that answer, and in the rest of Fry’s opinions articulated in that interview and elsewhere. But today I want to focus on how I connected his diatribe with the Peggy Lee recording.

Because in truth, if I could look at this world, and even this universe, in all its beauty and all its horror, with all its grandeur and all its injustice, and if I honestly believed that this is “all there is,” then I would probably do two things. First I would rant at God “if there is one” about how unfair and mean and stupid he is. Second, I would break out the booze and have a ball.

Because really, if that’s all there is, what else is there to do?

Now I can’t give a neat answer to the question “what’s bone cancer in children about?” There are many, many awful things that happen on this Earth. Some are manmade, and others are out of our hands. But let’s just imagine for a minute God creating the universe and making it perfect – perfect in the sense that nothing can go wrong, there can be no evil, no pain and no tears. According to the Bible there is such a place, but it isn’t Earth. Even in Genesis 1, before everything went wrong, Earth and everything in it is not described as perfect, merely “very good.”

In fact if this world and we human beings had been created perfect we would never have had a choice about how to live. We would only ever be able to make the decision that is right in God’s eyes – because by definition the Creator decides what is right in His creation. We would be robots, programmed not with Asimov’s three laws but with God’s ten commandments. The world would be beautiful and perfect, but our part in it would be meaningless. And if we were somehow given free will but nature held no peril, what purpose would our lives really have?

This outcome would not be so different from the atheist’s alternative. Theirs is a universe where there is no creator and no reason for creation to take place. It just happened, and from that moment on everything that has occurred has been entirely subject to the laws of physics. Every atom of every cell of your body is in its place because of the interaction of fundamental forces and particles. Every thought you have and every action you take is predetermined by those same natural laws. Because “if that’s all there is,” then you, as an individual, have no control over what the laws of physics lead you to do. And ultimately this means that your life, and this entire universe, has no purpose or meaning whatsoever.

Disillusionment.

There is another possibility. This is the possibility that God created the universe with intentional ‘flaws’, and that He created us with free will so that we could choose whether or not to follow His direction; so that we could decide how we wanted to respond to the threats that an ‘imperfect’ world presents; so that we could experience pain and grief and thus understand what joy really means. And all of this gives meaning to our lives. What we do, or even just try to do, matters. What we say and what we think matters, because they really are our thoughts, words and deeds. We have responsibility, and we have purpose.

And yes, there is a place of perfection, described in Revelation 21. A place where a child who died of bone cancer can live again with no tears and no pain. Maybe the broken life will be forgotten, or maybe it will be remembered in a way that heightens the joy of the new life. I don’t know. I don’t really know any details of what heaven and hell will be like. I think their reality is beyond the description of words, even the words of the Bible’s writers, even the “extravagantly rich” words that led Thomas Mann’s protagonist to his unhappy conclusions.

When every other option speaks of futility, I will choose to believe in the one that speaks of hope. And I will try to make good choices when facing the difficulties of this world, and I will try to enjoy the good things it offers, and I will know in my heart that the best is yet to come.

It is a thing most wonderful

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
He came to this poor world below,
And wept and toiled and mourned and died,
Only because He loved us so.

I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

I sometimes think about His cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails, and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

And yet I want to love Thee, Lord:
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more
Until I see Thee as Thou art!

William Walsham How (1823-1897)

Book Review: “And It Was Beautiful” by Kara Tippett

In normal circumstances if I knew the ending of a book before I began reading it, I might never begin. What would be the point? Nobody likes spoilers do they?

If I’d followed my usual line of reasoning in the case of And It Was Beautiful then I would have missed out on a precious, thought-provoking and life-affirming read. And I would have missed the point entirely. Kara Tippett died of cancer in March 2015, and that is where this book ends, but this book isn’t about that ending.

Because first, the book radiates Kara’s faith that death is not the end. Her faith and hope lift her out of, and far above, her inevitable moments of despondency. It also prevents her story from becoming overly sentimental.

Second, the book is a story about life, not death. It is the ordinary life of a pastor’s wife, a mother of four who finds herself in a battle with a deadly foe. But in the midst of that battle she finds joy in her relationships – with her husband, children, friends and relatives. She finds kindness everywhere, and strength in God through her trust in Jesus. She has difficult conversations with her children, and she faces brutal physical pain and emotional turmoil as her cancer refuses to be stopped. But she faces it all with a courage she doesn’t even seem to see in herself, with occasional humour, and with an overriding sense of peace.

And It Was Beautiful is composed of various writings, mostly from Kara’s blog posts at http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/ and in it she takes us with her on a journey through the last two or three years of her life. The tone is conversational. It is an easy read in that respect, although it had me struggling to hold back tears at some points. Perhaps I can sum up the book in Kara’s own words:

Some have called me heroic, for the fight, for the journey. I’m no hero. I’m just one broken woman looking for grace. I’m one needy heart in need of forgiveness. I’m just like everyone else, fighting to see grace, to live gently, to walk in integrity. It’s a daily battle, and some days it’s a war. And many days I blow it, bad. But there is always forgiveness.

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This book was provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Lord Light the Flame

I want to share with you the words of a beautiful song by Ruth Fazal. The tune is lovely, but unfortunately I can’t find a video online. The words though, are very dear to me, and speak clearly of where I am with God, and where I want to be, at this moment.

Lord, light the flame in my heart
That I may live for You.
O let it burn deep and bright,
That I may shine Your light.
Come cleanse and purify
The sin within me,
Let it die.
And let me live in Your fire,
O Holy God, that’s my desire

Lord, stir the fire in my heart,
That I may live for You.
O Jesus pour out Your love,
That I may love You too.
Go deep within me now,
O Holy Spirit come with power.
And let me live in Your fire,
O Holy God, that’s my desire.

You can learn more about Ruth at her website. This song can be found on her album “Fire of Love“. If you ever get a chance to see Ruth in concert, take it. I had the pleasure of spending an evening in her company along with about 50 others, in a small church in 2011. It was a wonderful, spirit-filled occasion.

Only You, My Jesus

Only You make my life complete
Only You give me peace of mind
Only You
Only You
Only You, my Jesus

Only You can release my heart
Only You can redeem my soul
Only You
Only You
Only You, my Jesus

This song came to me while I was driving through Luxembourg, from Clervaux to Walferdange, on 30 June 2009. As soon as I got back to my hotel I made this recording.

You can watch me sing it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnATNk45-UQ