Saturday, October 27, 2007

All that jazz

One of the things Prague is justly famous for is its music scene. It's coming down with Jazz and blues clubs which host live bands on pretty much every night of the week.

within spitting distance of the Old Town Square there are two excellent clubs in particular - AghaRTA (that is how they spell it!) and Ungelt.

Linda and I went to Ungelt on Thursday evening. On our previous visit we'd seen the Petr Zeman Quintet which is superb. He was playing again last week in a couple of places but we got to see Chicken Soup, a jazz/fusion band featuring a guitarist with fingers so fast and flexible that at times they are just a blur on his fret board, a Herbie Hancock influenced keyboard player, a sax and flute player of great dexterity and a rhythm section to die for.

They played some standards - Miles Davies and John Coltrane in particular - as well as a collection of scintillating original compositions.

It cost a fiver to get in, the beer was cheap and excellent, the atmosphere was great and it was a non-smoking cellar (making the atmosphere even more pleasant). It was so compact that I could ruffled the bass player's hair from where I sat (I didn't, of course, as I thought he might have found it irritating).

I can't think of anywhere in the UK where you'd have access to music of this quality and quantity in the middle of the week - can you?

Jazz seems to be part of that spirit of improvisation and free thinking that makes Prague such a magical place. In his account of the revolutions of 1989, Timothy Garton-Ash described what happened in Czechoslovakia (as it was then) as 'the most delightful of all the year's central European revolutions: the speed, the improvisation, the merriness and the absolutely central role of Vaclav Havel'. Havel is a playwright and poet and one who frequented jazz clubs through the dark night of Czechoslovakia's oppression following the aborted Prague Spring of 1968/9.

For me the jazz clubs are still places of non-conformity and inclusivity - even though they now cater for the tourists as much as the locals (most of the audience last Thursday were English speaking visitors or their Czech hosts). It would be a tragedy if they ever got homogenised.

A few days at IBTS

It was good to catch up with friends at IBTS - the International Baptist Theological Seminary - over this past week. Nestling in beautiful countryside in Jeneralka, a suburb of Prague, IBTS is a delight: lovely buildings - well restored - one of the best theological libraries in Europe and a truly international student body.

We were there to visit Ian and Janice Randall, members of our church, who are living there at the moment. Janice teaches English to students - during our stay, they were sitting their exams - and Ian is supervising a number of PhD students.

It was great to join the worship life of the community and share breakfast and fellowship with students at various times. IBTS runs a tourist hotel called hotel Jeneralka which is an excellent base for visiting Prague. Check out their website for rates and booking information ( They offer discounts to groups from Baptist churches, so why not see if some of your mates from church fancy a week or weekend in Europe's most wonderful capital city.

IBTS is also home to the European Baptist Federation, something which doesn't get a very high profile among most British baptists (we seem to be an insular lot with a regrettably ambivalent attitude towards Europe). It unites Baptists across Europe from Scotland to the Urals, giving voice to one of the most significant movements of Christians across our continent.

It was deeply moving in prayers at the college to hear young Christians from Serbia praying that war would not return to their country - something they fear if the negotiations over Kosovo break down. It is one thing to read what's going on in our papers, it's quite another to listen to intelligent and articulate young Christians from every side of these conflicts voice their concerns about what's going on.

It was also hugely encouraging to see so many young Europeans taking their faith seriously enough to travel great distances at comparatively enormous expense to equip themselves for the great task of making Jesus known in Europe.

Pray for them

Prague in the autumn

Just returned from Prague where we were staying at IBTS with a group of friends from church. Had a fab time. I'll blog about it later.

Suffice to say that Prague is a beautiful and intriguing place, small enough to walk round, big enough to lose yourself in. It's awash with great places to eat and wonderful cafes where reading books and magazines and taking as long as you like over a coffee is expected.

In the meantime, I've got to sort out what's happening tomorrow...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Touching heaven at Brixton academy

Went to see Editors last night. It's the third time I've seen them.

The first time they were supporting Franz Ferdinand at Ally Pally, their first album had just come out and they were a slightly nervous support act with promise.

Last night they were majestic headliners creating big bold colours with anthemic songs that touch on big themes.

What I like about Tom Smith's writing is his ability to create metaphors so spacious you could lodge a family in them. On the first album he sings a line like 'You burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road/All sparks will burn out in the end' and I'm sent to Ecclesiastes to reflect on the beauty and brevity of life. That picture of a bouncing cigarette, glowing red in the dark, throwing its light in every direction, the sense that it has been discarded, yet takes on a life of its own...

On the new album the brilliant line 'the saddest thing that I've ever seen/were smokers outside the hospital doors' makes me shudder every time Smith's rich baritone sings it. People killing themselves in the shadow of salvation, life needing risk to be worth living, yet we who take those risks will only take them in the presence of s safety net.

And on Racing Rats 'if a plane were to fall from the sky how big a hole would it leave in the surface of the earth' is a two line summation of the world we find ourselves in. Which plane? what sky? the crater left by air crash sucks in all those left behind into wondering why their loved ones were taken. It's a picture of all the random tragedies that blight our lives. And the fall out from 9/11 has shattered the earth way beyond the twin towers in ways that affect all of us...

These are metaphors you take up residence in. And for me they are vast open spaces that raise questions about faith and relationships, politics and where our lives might find meaning. On Weight of the World, Tom Smith sings 'you fuse my broken bones back together and then/lift the weight of the world from my shoulders/...every little piece of your life will mean something to someone.'

Of course, for me, I can't help thinking what these songs might have to say about faith and God. The obvious answer is 'nothing explicitly' and yet as I inhabit these metaphors, I find God's voice echoing in the space. As Smith sings 'you touch my face, God whispers in my ear. There are tears in my eyes, love replaces fear.'

The album closes with a song that they didn't do last night, a simple piano ballad that ends with the lines 'I don't wanna go out on my own anymore/I can't face the night like I used to before/I'm so sorry for the things that they've done/I'm so sorry about what we've all become.'

I just wish there were worship writers creating such spacious, intriguing, honest metaphors that help us explore more explicitly our life with God in the world he's created.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The value of not drawing attention to ourselves

Over at the continually provocative View from the basement, Brodie poses an interesting question about what word best describes the post-Christendom church if power describes Christendom. There have been lots of good suggestions. I went for anonymous and justified it by saying the following:

'I think 'anonymous' is a possible way of contrasting Christendom and post-Christendom. The church under Christendom was all about profile as well as power, it's about seeking attention from the world, the church has a 'look at me' mentality because it believes that if the world looks at the church, it will believe it's message. This is nonsense, of course, in our changed world. Anonymity provides us with the opportunity to live our lives as followers of Jesus without that living being distorted by the thought of having an audience. It gives us the possibility of being stumbled over by those who didn't know they were looking for us and who in finding us enter a conversation of equals. Maybe I'm just being optimistic and maybe I'm feeling the pressure of feeling constantly in a goldfish bowl in the church I lead! I also don't think it contradicts Jesus calling us the salt of the earth and light of the world because I'm not sure that our being these things ought to be a self-conscious act on our part that invites attention being paid to us. after all, a candle does not sit on the table saying 'look at me', it provides light so that we can see other things. likewise salt preserves or makes things grow (whichever interpretation we go for) and doesn't draw attention to itself - unless there's so much of it that it swamps every other flavour (hardly what Jesus had in mind). '

At the conference I attended last week we had an excellent plenary given by Maeve Sherlock, former head of the Refugee Council, adviser to Gordon Brown and just embarking on a PhD in theology at Durham. She has only come to faith within the last few years and spoke of her attitude towards the church before meeting Jesus.

Basically, she said, she felt the church was invisible, having no impact on her life, no call on her time and certainly no message worth her while pausing to reflect on. She just didn't see it. It was completely anonymous.

However, looking back, following her conversion, she said she began to note individuals and organisations who had left a mark because there was something about them. In particular, a number of individuals who worked with refugees and their families who'd impressed her at the time because of their concern for and commitment to the needs of refugees, who she now discovers are Christians.

It was the cumulative effect of so many 'anonymous' Christians, just getting on with doing what God had called them to do, that she believes was a key factor in God drawing her to himself. Had these individuals or groups been constantly shouting 'look at us - we do this because we're Christians', she'd have been repelled and run a mile.

So maybe a key value for Christian groups as well as individuals doing stuff in the community is this: just do it - don't justify it, theologise publicly about it, put Christian badges on while you do it - just do it...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Paying attention to what we sing

Just back from a conference on charity management called Aiming 4 Excellence. It was the usual mixed bag. Some sessions were wonderful - Suzi Leather of the Charity Commission, Jim Saker (a man I used to be a youth group with at Knighton Free) and Alan Storkey were particularly outstanding.

The worship was a bit tedious, however. I'm growing increasingly tired of 'worship' that consists of singing a string of songs that tell God what he's like. Now, don't get me wrong, I think there is a place for praising and magnifying the name of God, calling to mind his attributes and remembering with gratitude all he's done for us. But a run of songs that tell God he's awesome in language that recalls a teenager describing a video game doesn't do much for me, I'm afraid.

I was listening to Editors new album on the way up, a collection of laments describing life on planet earth in pithy and telling one-liners. I found it interesting to compare and contrast the worship at the conference with the tracks on An End has a Start. Isn't there a reason why two thirds of psalms are laments, why Ecclesiastes, Job and Lamentations play such a crucial part in the Jewish liturgical calendar?

Surely the reason is this: our talking to God ought to be as much about life down here as it is about him up there. Surely, we are called to articulate the pain and bewilderment of human beings in the presence of God - as Abraham did, as the Psalms do, As Paul suggests we do in Romans 8. Surely our gatherings are meant to be a dialogue between us and God where he hears our pain and reminds that he shares it and is at work bringing to fruition his great work of redemption which is about more than me having my sins forgiven.

The irony is that the congregation at the conference were directors and trustees of charities working with some of the poorest people in some of the hardest places in our land. At the very least we should have been inviting the almighty to hear again the cry of the oppressed and hearing his cracked voice respond in the Spirit groaning in his groaning people immersed in a groaning creation (to borrow Paul's language from Romans 8).

Where are the song writers, writing liturgical music that puts some of the pain of our communities into words that we can sing in our gatherings? They must be out there.