Missy Higgins – honest, raw and genuine

Missy_Higgins_@_Sir_Stewart_Bovell_Park_(8_1_12)_(6693050923)I have had the privilege over the years of seeing some great musicians live. And as someone who is not musical in the sense of playing or singing, I have found that the great artists all have their own unique sound: U2 and Midnight Oil come to mind for me. Another one is Missy Higgins.

When you have that sense that the first time you listen to an artist that there is something special here, it stays with you. That’s what happened when I first listened to Higgins’ first album, The Sound of White, about 10 years ago. The emotion, honesty and vulnerability in the stories she tells through her songs, songs of the everyday joys and pains of life, as well as her unique Australian sound, have had an impact on me that always have me looking forward to her next release.

Seeing her live though was something else. She has a wonderfully quirky, comfortable stage presence, like she is having a conversation with you. She has that wonderful combination of being a self-confessed introvert yet possessing the ability to be a natural on stage, confident and able to just be herself. With Missy Higgins, what you see is what you get.

Her songs generally tell a story of life in all its beauty and ugliness, and of the impact that music and people have had on her. Her latest album, Oz, is a covers album of songs that have had an effect on her young life. Like me, it is the lyrics of songs that have the greatest impact on her. It might be a line or just the way in which the story is told that triggers memories of days gone by when significant events happened to us or when there were turning points in our lives. This is what makes Missy Higgins so easy to listen to.

Higgins’ music over the years has followed the example of those who have influenced her. But, like many quality artists, she is a whole package. It is her lyrics that inspire and take you to another place, but it is also how she sings, in that raw, honest, Australian drawl with a music that is fitting for the mood of the lyrics.

Not many artists are so open about their musical journey, but seeing footage of Higgins’ life as she sang songs that describe her joys and pains, gives you a sense of connection that only the really good artists possess. Again, like artists of true quality, you come away from a Missy Higgins song feeling like you know her just a little bit more. That feeling was amplified seeing her live, as she told of the ways in which the songs from Oz left their mark on her. There was an intimacy about a show like this that leaves you both satisfied at the end yet disappointed that it couldn’t go on for longer.

This was the last live show for Higgins for at least 12 months, due to the fact that, in her words, she has another project coming up next year which involves trying to bring up a human being.

The setting of the Regent Theatre in the heart of Melbourne was fitting for this excellent show. Performing her last show for a while in her home town, in a venue that is such an icon of this beautiful city, just added to the sense of occasion and feeling that was evoked by her presence. When she eventually tours again, be sure not to miss out on experiencing the delightfully ordinary, accessible yet beautiful stage-presence of an Australian icon.

Life is a choice

german-shepherds-watching-catLife is a choice.

We find that this is true especially when we struggle. It is through struggle that character can grow. In fact I would say that it is only in struggle that character can grow. We can choose to rise above our troubles or decide to be overcome by them. Rising above them doesn’t mean ignoring them and pushing them asunder. It means moving forward regardless of the storms of life that are swirling all around us.

One of my great heroes, and probably the most courageous person I have ever known of (apart from Jesus, who chose to go to the cross knowing full well what it would cost) is Martin Luther King. Check out this quote from King from his sermon, Antidotes for fear (Don’t worry about the gender-specific language. It was written in the language of the day. Of course this quote applies equally to women as to men):

“Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

Often when trouble strikes, we can feel overwhelmed, even paralysed, by fear. It has certainly happened to me. What I have found is that it is through the growing understanding that we are always ok in God’s sight, and slowly coming to the realisation that we can no longer deny God’s unconditional love for us, that we gain the courage to face whatever is in front of us. This can take years, and in reality, is never fully completed until the day we pass from this earth.

Courage is not the absence of fear though; it is admitting that you might be scared sh*tless but moving forward anyway. That’s where it is a choice. There is nothing wrong with being scared; it is when we allow our fears to overcome us that we never deal with the challenges we are facing.

One of the many examples of Dr King’s courage in the face of adversity is captured in this quote from a sermon he wrote while in jail for civil disobedience:

“Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

This is what love does, love born of the courage to face fear, look it full in the face and say, like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “you shall not pass!”.

Life is a choice. God give me the courage to face it on its terms.

Loneliness kills more people than Ebola ever will

Great but tragic article from George Monbiot on this age in our existence being known as the age of loneliness. Check out some of these startling quotes:

  • “Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”
  • “Structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism.”
  • “For [all our technological and material prowess], we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.”

Why I’ve had enough of being spiritual

Firefighters rescue stranded motoristsFirst glance at a heading like this might cause some confusion. “But isn’t God spirit? Jesus himself says so, so what’s the problem with any attempt at being spiritual?”

Jesus did indeed say that God is spirit, in his incredible conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. And because Jesus said it, we can regard it as true. But do we find it kind of ironic as well that it is Jesus – God with skin on – who says that God is spirit?

If we want to know what God is like, as Richard Rohr says, we can just look at Jesus. If Jesus is our image of God, then Jesus is what God looks like. And Jesus was a fully embodied human being, just like the rest of us.

Most of our spiritualising of our Christian faith actually harks back to Greek thinking rather than what the biblical story is actually bringing across. And what Jesus meant when he said that God is spirit was not what we think it means. He was speaking into a specific situation and context with the woman at the well.

Most of you will have probably heard the story of the man who drowned in a flood and went to heaven. The story goes like this: Continue reading

Finding love by loving others

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This is a really good piece. I particularly love this quote:

“Because we do not usually understand and internalize the nature of our foundational sin, we usually think our job as Christians is to embrace a moral system, live by it, and thus to be good people in contrast to all those who are evil. In fact, God’s goal for us is much more profound and much more beautiful than merely being good: it is to do the will of God by being loving, just as God is loving.”

Finding the life we’re after by being loving goes against what much of the church says. We are often taught that loving ourselves first is the way to loving others. But that is not biblical. We find life by loving others, by “losing our life” for the sake of others. That is what loving God is. Of course it does matter hugely that we accept that we are loved. But that is different from trying to build our self-esteem at the expense of others.

It is actually about realising that we are already loved; we don’t need to do anything to feel loved. Our identity comes from knowing that we are already loved and then loving others out of that freedom. It is in the giving of loving others that we find identity and the fulfilment that we are constantly searching for.

It is a huge relief to realise that we don’t need to be “needy” and desperately search for love. If we do that we end up using and manipulating others. Love is infinitely greater than fear.

Pain as a catalyst for change – by Ian Grimwood

change-e1411088639983Here is another insightful post from Ian Grimwood. This one is on pain as a catalyst for change. It reminds me of a few things:

  • As I realised when my role at World Vision was made redundant, sometimes your life has to be disrupted before you can move forward.
  • Richard Rohr says that until we see that our current way of living isn’t working, we will never change (much like Ian’s point that change happens when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change).
  • Pain is a gift. We just need to choose to see it that way. And that’s when we can see the truth of Romans 8:28 in our lives.
  • Martin Luther King talked about redemptive suffering. Our suffering is never meaningless, despite it often feeling that way.

Apparently there’s a new album out

U2_360_at_Cowboys_StadiumLast Wednesday was a good day for me. In fact it was a Beautiful Day. You might even say it was Magnificent. Do you see where I’m going with this? Yes, The Miracle has occurred. After years of speculation, the latest U2 album is finally here. And, just like that other miracle in Luke 9:10-17, so far, over 200 thousand iTunes users have downloaded and had their fill.

But can you ever get your fill of a U2 album? I have listened to this one a few times already and while I’m preferring some songs over others, those lesser ones are growing on me. You could say a U2 song is like pizza, chocolate or sex: when it’s good it’s really good, and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good!

After a few listens, this album has definitely been worth the wait. The first six songs have the potential to become classics, some of them even anthems. I can just picture them ringing out around massive stadiums around the world (although they would have to be pretty special to beat the sheer spine-tingling electricity of Where the Streets Have No Name being performed live).

On first listen, my initial thought about this album was that it is less Christian than previous ones. But what is Christian? Is it about how many overt biblical references you can count in the lyrics, or is it more about how faith is actually embedded in them? As Greg Clarke says in his eloquent and insightful review of this album, U2 are very good at naturalising their Christianity. It has been a natural part of who they are for so many years that it doesn’t necessarily have to be overt. It just comes out in the stories of life that exude out of these songs. Out of the heart the mouth speaks.

Songs of Innocence is an album that expresses the angst, insecurity and inspiration of youth. It is a tribute to the band’s early years, written with appropriate fondness and richness. The fondness includes tributes to the influences that made the band, and Bono in particular, what they are today. These are songs of influence on four young men, just ordinary guys, who were shaped by the many and complicated facets of faith, religion and politics of Northern Ireland.

When I review albums, I tend to focus on the lyrics to find a connection to relate to. That’s where it’s always been easy reviewing a U2 album. For millions of fans, the uniqueness of this great band lies in the depth of connection one feels, particularly with Bono. You sort of feel like you know him as he opens up about faith, hope, love, sex, fear, and the myriad other ecstasies and agonies of life. No wonder he lamented, back in 1989, the hero-worship that takes place when we turn admiration into obsession, in the brilliant Love Rescue Me, “many strangers have I met on the road to my regret; many lost who seek to find themselves in me. They ask me to reveal the very thoughts they would conceal. Love rescue me.”

Healthy connection though is what U2 have always been about – connection both with their audience and with the life-long search for reality in this roughly three-score-years-and-ten that we’re all supposed to get in our time on this planet.

It is more than the lyrics though that make up U2’s greatness. Their poetic eloquence are complemented by the passionate energy of the music itself, fuelled by a spiritual anger that arises out of the heart of these four Irishmen who have have seen their fair share of troubles in their homeland. The music and lyrics, combined with the yearning, passionate spiritual rage, make this band a consistent standout in a world of increasingly manufactured, bland and, quite frankly, often boring, pop.

For me, the standout songs are Every Breaking Wave (“Every shipwrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy” – spot on) and Iris (Hold Me Close), the latter a beautiful, heart-wrenching tribute to Bono’s mother who died so tragically when he was just 14. Written from the maturity and life experience of 40 years hence, it is a touching tribute to a woman who clearly had a major influence on his life, and someone whom he still misses dearly.

It is the ache of loss that comes through quite powerfully on this album. More than once, Bono refers to his own pain and grief that not even being a rock superstar can take away. Here are a few examples:

“The ache In my heart Is so much a part of who I am” – Iris (Hold Me Close)

“There’s no end to grief?That’s how I know?That’s how I know?And why I need to know that there is no end to love?All I know and all I need to know is there is no end to love”

- California (There is No End to Love)

“A heart that is broken is a heart that is open” – Cedarwood Road

“We got language so we can’t communicate?Religion so I can love and hate?Music so I can exaggerate my pain, and give it a name”

- The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)

These examples are another attraction of U2, and of this album in particular. The raw honesty is the conduit that makes the connection between band and listener so strong and so intimate.

These songs of innocence are in fact songs of meaning. They are personal to the core; they are honest and they are vulnerable. They are typical, classic U2, in lyric, in sound and in impact on this fan of 30 years’ standing. It was worth the wait.

Words that build or destroy

Words_Of_Wisdom_book“Words that build or destroy” – U2, Promenade

On the morning of September 11, 2001, theologian Miroslav Volf was just finishing a talk to the International Prayer Breakfast of the United Nations in Manhattan. The time was 8.34am. The topic was reconciliation.

The minutes following would see some of the greatest chaos and turmoil ever on American soil as planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center not far from where Volf had been speaking.

During a recent interview, Volf was asked if he thought his words of reconciliation felt empty as 3,000 people died in what he describes as an occurrence that was the opposite of reconciliation.

Words have the ability to build up or destroy. When I was in school we had a saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It was a saying designed to protect our minds against bullies. While you may call me every name under the sun, they can’t hurt me because I know I’m worthwhile.

Life has since taught me that such words are simply not true. Words can be poison, especially to a child. The little boy or girl who is constantly told by their parents or peers that they can’t do anything right, or that they’ll never be any good, will often go through life believing it. They will hate themselves, and more often than not inflict that hatred on others in some form or other. Hurt people hurt people.

Words also have the ability to inspire, to build up and to encourage. The child who is consistently told they are loved and worthwhile will grow up with that belief and will find it a lot easier to pass on that love to others.

Words have the power to change lives, for good or for ill. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds that it doesn’t matter who they are, they are blessed right now. That was life-changing for people who were constantly given the message that they were nothing.

Nations have been changed by words. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech inspired a generation of African Americans to believe they were worthwhile and deserved all the rights that other Americans enjoyed.

Talk may have appeared cheap to Miroslav Volf on that tragic morning in New York. But if our words are transformative, and if they lead us to live them out, then no act of terrorism or verbal abuse of an innocent child will ever be able to deceive us into thinking we are anything less than made in the image of a God who gave us the greatest words ever spoken.

Figuring out my midlife crisis

3707187124_546942ec87_zI turned 45 this year, so I guess it’s about time I had a midlife crisis. Mine has been partly self-inflicted and partly forced upon me. I suppose that’s they way they happen though. No one really chooses to go through a crisis of identity.

And identity is what crises of these types are all about. Having a couple of major traumas in my life in the last 12 months has led me to look at just where my identity has lain. It turns out that, to a large extent, I have been building my house on sand as well as on the rock of the love and security of God.

That is not to criticise where my heart has been (for the most part) in the years leading up to these traumas. It’s more that God has been calling me to a deeper level of commitment. As they say, be careful what you pray for, because there’s a good chance it will be answered! And, thankfully, God is not “nice” as we Western Christians often are when we try to deal with things. This is no Sunday School “gentle Jesus, meek and mild, tiptoeing through the meadows.” This is a God who takes the bull by its horns.

If you surrender yourself to this God, you can guarantee that surgery will be performed on your soul. And there are no anaesthetics when God is at the operating table. That doesn’t mean that God is mean; quite the contrary. This is surgery that gets to the root causes and cuts out the cancer for it never to return. This is love at its best, polishing the rough edges of the diamond so it resembles the exquisite beauty that the Master Surgeon originally intended for it. Continue reading

What does maturity look like?

Understanding peopleI’ve just been reading a bit of Larry Crabb’s book, Understanding People, again. It’s a book I got in 1987 and it has made a huge impact on me.

The sections I read today discussed maturity and what that looks like. The fact is that much of what looks like maturity in people is actually a commitment to self-protection.

Here are some quotes from the book that have really struck and challenged me. The fact that I find a lot of these quotes so uncomfortable is a sure sign that they apply to me.

  • “Maturity is less related to perfection than to a growing awareness of imperfection, an awareness that…drives us toward dependency on Christ for anything good to come out of our lives.”
  • “A mature pattern of relating involves whatever actions represent the abandonment of self-protection. The defensively pushy person will become more gentle as he matures, while the self-protectively gracious person will assert himself more.”
  • “Mature people relate to others without self-protection as their controlling motive. They love. Their actions may be gentle or brusque, silly or serious, traditional or progressive, quiet or noisy, gracious or severe, tolerant or confrontative, but they will be patient, kind, not envious, humble, sensitive, other-centred, slow to anger, quickly forgiving, haters of wrong, lovers of right, protective, trusting, hoping, persevering.”
  • “[Mature people] relate to others on the basis of a trust in God to look after their deepest welfare that frees them to direct their energies toward helping others.”
  • “In [the presence of mature people], our growth seems more appealing to us than required of us.”
  • “As people learn to love, the internal structures that sustain their emotional and psychological ills are eroded.”
  • “When the Scriptures give no clear instruction to govern specific choices, then the principle is always to do what is loving.”
  • “The effect of dependence on God is freedom to take hold of our worlds and to deal responsibly with them without being controlled by a fear of the pain to which our obedience may lead. The effect of clinging to God is the freedom to love.”