Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Memories

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.

Breaking up is hard to do ended a long-term relationship yesterday.

We parted ways amicably, but it’s still painful. Like any relationship, we had our ups and downs. At times I wanted out. But through it all, my love for my other never wavered.

My relationship gave me joy and it gave me grief. We shared the best of times and we wept in times of seeming despair. But the important thing was we shared those times. We went through them together. After all, we are all wired for relationship.

As the years went by, our relationship started to develop some codependent traits; there were times when my attachment to my other became unhealthy. I would find myself wondering how on earth I would cope if our love affair ever ended.

Eventually though I started to see my unhealthy dependency more clearly. And as I did, I began to break free from the burden of needing the relationship for my sense of identity. That neediness was placing an unfair burden on both of us. It was a burden we couldn’t sustain. I had to realise I was just as much a person with or without the relationship.

Through that time of growth, my love for my other remained. In fact I started to reflect on the fact that I no longer felt resentful at times when my other let me down. I realised the obvious: that I let my other down at least just as much as I was let down, probably more. And I learned the power and freedom of forgiveness.

As a result I started to cope a lot better with life in general. That’s what healthy relationships do; you bring out the best in each other.

Eventually though, circumstances in the relationship came to a head. We would either find another way to move forward or we would have to part ways. It turned out we would part ways.

The pain at first was intense. When the decision was made, I cried. But I was determined to end this well. I had seen similar cases where bitterness remained and both sides walked away unhappy. I didn’t want to be another one of those people. Bitterness is too much of a burden to carry. My love for my other was deep and we wanted only the best for each other. I would do everything I could to make sure my other was treated well and was not shown in a bad light. My other did the same for me.

The following months were a time of both anxiety about where our lives would take us, and excitement about new possibilities. My other treated me well; I was given the freedom to look at how to pursue life post our love affair.

As we began to reflect on our time together over the previous years, our true feelings for each other came out more. I reflected on how enriched my life had been for being in this relationship, a relationship that in so many ways was meant to be.

In the end though the parting of our ways was painful. It is always is when it actually happens. You can talk about it forever but nothing prepares you for the reality. But although it was painful, it was also special. We hugged, we kissed, and we cried as we told each other how much we loved each other.

World Vision, you gave me some of the best years of my life. You have ensured that I will not forget you. I’m glad we remain not just on good terms, but good friends. Thanks so much for everything. And, who knows, maybe we’ll get back together one day.

God of the outback

Childhood memories can be a great thing. My wife and I have just returned from Broken Hill in NSW. During our stay there (which was only a couple of days), a number of events triggered nostalgic emotions for me. Driving through one of the most famous towns in Australia reminds me that there is so much history in this place. That and the fact that it was about 40 degrees every day we were there makes you realise that this is the outback. More than that though was the typical country hospitality of the family members we stayed with. These are people of whom city folks like me live off the backs of, and yet they will do anything for you.

Being in a place like Broken Hill, in the Australian outback, does something to you, especially if you have not been there for a very long time. I was last in these parts 35 years ago on a trip to the Flinders Ranges with my Mum, Dad and brother. We never actually made it to Broken Hill on that trip due to the fact that we rolled our car just near Lake Frome, but that’s a story for another time. But despite that, the fond memories of being ‘beyond the black stump’ came flooding back on this trip. One event that it brought back for me was the brilliant sunsets that you only get in places like this. The sky turns a brilliant orange as the sun goes down over the vast empty land, giving the lizards and kangaroos some respite for another day. Occasionally you will also hear the cackling of galahs and cockatoos in the distance as they feed their young after a hard day’s scavenging over carcasses of dead reptiles or other animals. Their greatest competition of course is the mighty wedge-tailed eagle, soaring over the cloudless sky, as they do, with the authority of that other king of their own terrain, the lion.

The simply beautiful flora and fauna evoke even more wonderful memories. The Sturt Desert Pea is the flower everyone talks about out here, and you can see why. I still remember my mother exclaiming in delight in her thick German accent, “The Pea! The Pea!” the first time she saw this uniquely Australian flower with its rich red vertical petals marked with the blackest of black spots.

This is truly a sunburnt country, of droughts and flooding rains, as the famous poem puts it. And in just the last few years, haven’t we seen the disastrous extremities of both? It is a vast land; a land of endless horizons where there is yet more of the same nothingness over the next hill. Or if you look at it a different way, there is something spiritual in the vastness. I reckon I now understand a bit more of why Jesus was led into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry. Rowland Croucher has said that one of the characteristics of the prophets is that they each went through a time in the wilderness. There is something about the ruggedness, the wildness, and what you might call the ‘untouchedness’ of this land that speaks of the character of God. This is a place where in years gone by, the toughest of men and the most robust of women were faced with their own mortality. You simply had to survive in this place. There were none of the accoutrements that we cannot seem to get by with today in the big city. Out there you were faced with the flies, the heat and the dust, and you simply had to deal with it.

As I reflected some more on the beauty of this part of the country, I was reminded of a song that Steve Grace sings in which he tells of his love of Australian country towns. There is something Christlike about the giving nature and generosity of people out here. As Grace puts it, “I thank God for Australian country towns and the special kind of people that I like to be around.” These are people who are generous to a fault; people with faces worn by harsh years of living on the land, people who know what it is to face hard times and have their dignity not only retained but enhanced. As I have said elsewhere, there is something about suffering that is redemptive, or at least can be. It can give you a depth of understanding and empathy for the plight of others that people who haven’t suffered deeply simply cannot possess, however sympathetic they might be.

Without wanting to romanticise the outback and its people – of course not everyone is like what I have described above, just like anywhere else – every city person should spend a decent amount of time in a town like Broken Hill. And I don’t mean in a comfortable motel while you spend the day visiting the local tourist attractions. I mean living with a family who can tell you stories of what it is like to live in this part of the country. If you are able to do this, you will learn something about life and coping with it that will touch something deep in your soul. There is a good chance you will know more of what real community is. In our Facebook generation we learn to determine our worth by the number of people who have ‘friended’ us and we are thereby robbed of living in real community. Dave Andrews made the point once that real community is where there is always someone you don’t want to be around. That’s why it is so good for us. Because we can’t just ignore them or ‘unfriend’ them. We are forced to relate, and we grow in the process. It is real life.

It is the harshness of the land that also shapes the irreverent and hard-nosed humour of the people who live out here. Many Christians would find the humour crude, yet this is the culture in these parts. There is nothing offensive about it. It’s just the way they express their experience of life in this harsh part of the world.

I love the outback. Maybe it’s those wonderful childhood memories it brings back. Or maybe it’s the yearning for something wild in the spirit of a male that it evokes. After all, if you believe that we have been around for many a million years, then the wild vastness of this place is where we have our roots. This is God’s own country: unspoilt, untouched, and untamed. We have a lot to learn from this part of the world and its people. They also have a lot to learn from us, but when the vast majority of the country lives in an urban sprawl, it is the spirit of the outback that can bring us closer to the wild, rugged God who made it all.

Minutes to Memories

“Days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories. Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned” – John Mellencamp, Minutes to Memories

There is a scene in the movie Up in the Air where George Clooney’s character is trying to convince his brother-in-law-to-be to not jilt his bride on their wedding day. The groom has cold feet and isn’t sure he wants to go through with such a huge commitment. And Clooney, who is starting to realize the loneliness of his own 24/7 casual jetsetting lifestyle, asks the groom to remember all of the happiest times of his life. As the groom starts to think, he realizes that they were all spent with other people; the happiest times of his life were when he was not by himself.

I was being shown some photos of the family of a friend the other day. This person has 8 siblings and the family gets together often to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. As I was driving home that day I felt a sadness come over me. I am one of 3 brothers who all live in different cities. Soon we will all be living in different countries. I don’t have a large family to see here. I was then reminded of some family friends whose extended family now spans four generations. The first and second generations of this family have spent every summer holiday for the last forty years at the same place. Some would say “how boring!” but I think it’s wonderful. This family can associate that place with the best moments of their lives. I have sometimes joined them on their holidays and I have always felt just as much a part of their family as the blood relations themselves.

We have been sold a lemon in our busy 24/7 lives. We have been taught to believe that our happiness actually lies in having more stuff and not having people bother us all the time. Many of us would rather live on our own than go through the hassle of sharing a house with someone else. And many of us would rather the all-fun-and-no-responsibility of casual sex than the hard work and struggle of a committed relationship.

We live a lonely existence in the western world. I heard someone say recently that we know more of what is happening on the other side of the world than we do about our next-door neighbours. We build our fences higher and spend more time online than we do getting to know people face-to-face. I remember growing up in suburban Melbourne and knowing every person or family in our street. I still have memories of our next-door neighbour passing some of our kitchen chairs that he had just fixed back over the fence to us. I wonder how many of our children today will have those memories when they look back in 30 years’ time.

I was talking to a colleague on the bus during the week about this. This lady is African and has been living in Australia for about a year now. As we were discussing what life is like for her compared to back home, she remarked that one of the things she has noticed is the number of people who either live alone or who spend time alone. She said that in her country it was a duty to introduce yourself to your neighbours when you moved into a new area. It is just part of what you do. And sure enough, people quickly get to know each other and there is a lot less fear in their neighbourhoods than there is in much of suburban Australia. We are poorer for the fact that we generally don’t do that as well in this country.

Our deepest and most cherished memories are indeed of those times spent in relationship. It is often difficult but it far outweighs the pain of the lonely crowd, of not feeling connected to the people closest to us. Dave Andrews has said that community is somewhere where there is always someone you don’t want to be around, and some friends of mine once said that anything worth doing is never going to be easy. Our lives in this world are short and we never know when our time is up. The writer of Ecclesiastes was right – our lives are vanished in an instant; we come from the dust and to the dust we will return (Ecc 3:20). And it can all seem like a chasing after the wind. Life does indeed sweep away the dreams we have planned.

The hard work of bringing in community, of getting to know our neighbours, can be so simple. A friend of mine said during the week that just having a kick of the footy in the street can bring other children out. Then all of a sudden conversations start, people get to know each other and walls of fear and mistrust break down. Jesus did this when he broke all the social conventions of 1st century culture by associating with tax collectors and ‘sinners’. Jesus knew how to have a good time, and he told his disciples of the joy he had within him. His life was about relationship and the early church followed in his footsteps. They endured the daily struggle of living in community, they shared all they had; they passed their kitchen chairs over the fence to each other, if they even had fences. And their lives were so attractive that they added to their number daily those who were being saved from their own loneliness and self-absorption to life in the community of Jesus.

Does all this stir up a longing within you, a longing for things that once were? Do you have similar childhood memories to the ones I have related and wish they could be the reality once again? One day when the new heavens and the new earth come together and all things are made new, we will enjoy that community again. But this time it will be complete and we will create new memories, memories which will live forever. And the wonderful news of the Gospel is that Jesus calls us to that new life now. He calls us to deny ourselves, to do the hard work of relationship and to put our lonely, selfish ways behind us. He came that we would have life in all its fullness. And that life is only found in community. It is found in community with those who are also living for justice and peace, those who struggle with each other in the now but who also live in the hope of the not-yet, that time when all barriers will be broken down and all things reconciled in the glorious world to come.

There is much more to say about these profound lyrics by John Mellencamp. Memories can be cherished and they can be painful. Far too many people have memories that are just too traumatic to raise again. All of us have dreams that have been shattered, expectations that did not eventuate, and hopes that were never realized. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard, from two different people, is that life is mainly about how we deal with loss, ultimately to the loss of our life.

Psychologist Larry Crabb says we can use disappointment to drive us to hope. What Crabb is referring to is the ultimate hope of the renewal of all things. When days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories, and life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned, remember that we are destined for more. This life is not all there is. Remember too that everything we do in this life matters. What Martin Luther King called the beloved community starts now. The greatest things in our lives are those done in relationship. When we live this out we will be able to look back and have memories that move us to gratitude – gratitude to God for giving us the courage to follow the One who calls us to remember, to remember what He has done in sacrificing His all and giving us the privilege of working with Him to bring in the kingdom where our dreams of love and justice, and forgiveness and grace will finally be realized.

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