Painting the skies


I’ve realised that many of my favourite places have beaches img_0542facing west, and are perfect for sunsets. Holidays to Vancouver, Croatia, Oban and Fionnphort have been particularly memorable for some amazing sunsets. On my current trip in Scotland, even with some weather during some days that could definitely be described as dreich, the evenings have been beautiful and so far I have had four nights with four amazing sunsets, and taken probably over a hundred photographs on both my camera and my phone. Sometimes I think the phone actually captures the colours better, even with all the fancy settings on my camera.


I’ve long been fascinated by beautiful skies, and took up the theme for my GCSE art exam where I chose a section from a poem by Fleur Adcock called ‘Leaving the Tate’. It’s well worth a read or listen, but the part which inspired my sky-scapes was this bit:

And such a sky
You wonder who painted it – Constable? No:image
too brilliant. Crome? No: too ecstatic –

a madly pure Pre-Raphaelite sky
perhaps, sheer blue apart from the white plumes
rushing up it (today that is,
April. Another day would be different

but it wouldn’t matter, all skies work.

I’m not enough of an art buff to know which artists have captured skies in particular ways, or to really hazard a suggestion at who has portrayed skies like the ones I have seen in Scotland in the last few days. Do make a comment with a suggestion if you have any. img_0537-1I did buy some placemats with paintings by Jolomo – John Lowrie Morrison whose work from the Highlands and Islands has caught my eye before. This one of a beach in Colonsay has perhaps the closest match to my lovely beach views but my photo doesn’t bring out the teal which I hope will match my lounge!

The question of who paints the skies also starts off a song by Stuart Townend. This YouTube version has some nice pictures but it’s quite a hotpotch. It makes me want to make my own version when I get home and have access to more of my photos more easily. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he focuses on the splendour of Jesus, following King David from millennia before:

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.”

‭‭Psalm‬ ‭19:1-6‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Such beautiful skies do make me praise God, and the glory of creation as a whole is one of the things which convinces me that there is a God and the universe is not just a matter of coincidence. I’m not sure if I think God spends time painting skies – part of me wonders if he’d delegate the task to a angel or four, or I suppose simply create the conditions where sunsets are a regular phenomenon. But then trying to understand that God is outside time as we know it, there is no reason why he shouldn’t take time to enjoy creating more beauty for us to marvel at.

One other way I enjoy engaging with the beauty and colours of nature is by having a go at some art myself.  The view in Oban is one which my Mum and I have both tried to paint over the years, and the colours in my acrylic from 2006 are quite similar to this year’s pastel effort.

Not surprisingly, God’s rather better at sunsets than I am, but as with most of life, I think he likes it that I have a go.  

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Achieving a miracle?

People who know me will be aware that I take song lyrics more seriously than most.  I mostly enjoyed the Prince of Egypt film, and one of my favourite songs happened as Moses and Miriam led the Israelites out of Egypt towards the Red Sea.  They sing ‘When you believe’, a song which has since been made more famous by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, although in the film version it is sung well by Michelle Pfeiffer, Sally Dworsky and a children’s choir.  I particularly enjoy the children’s choir singing in Hebrew, with text taken quite closely from Moses and Miriam’s songs in Exodus 15.

But the lines in the chorus that always bothered me go:

Who knows what miracles you can achieve
When you believe, somehow you will
You will when you believe.

My objection was over who does the miracle – surely, I thought, this is God’s miracle, by his power alone, and so to talk of Moses or others achieving miracles seemed unsound.  Why, I wondered, did they not talk about what miracles you can receive, as this also rhymes easily with the key ‘believe’ lyric, but I guess the emphasis on God rather than your own rewarded efforts would make this less of a popular inspirational song?  And so I just thought it was a bit skewwhiff, but generally a positive rendition of a key Biblical moment.  But more recently I’ve had to reconsider the concept.

miracle workJordan Seng, a pastor from Hawaii, was preaching at Christian festival New Wine last week.  My sister and family were there and she shared a link to watch the main teaching and worship times (music and prayer) via YouTube livestream.  I’m not sure this broadcasting has been common practice before but it was a way to get access to impressive teaching while still in my own bed during my annual leave, rather than having to pay to attend, and camp!  Anyway, Jordan has recently published a book called ‘Miracle Work’ and his series of talks was about ‘The Life of Try’ and encouraging people to step out into supernatural ministry, most particularly healing the sick.  His main point was that in the same way as we don’t just pray asking God to bless our preach, but that we study and prepare and do the work, so there is work involved in healing people.

The most revolutionary thing to me was that people in the Bible don’t get healed by people praying asking God to heal them.  There are many various and at time wacky ways of healing people (spit and mud on people’s eyes?), but the main pattern is that Jesus or one of his followers declares healing rather than asking God for it.  This may be as simple as saying ‘In the name of Jesus, be healed’ and laying a hand on the affected body part, but what they don’t say is ‘Please God, heal this person’.  Jordan emphasised that it is person to person and that we are involved in the healing, even though it is vitally God’s power that is working the miracle.  Remarkably God chooses to use us as his flawed agents of healing, we don’t just delegate the job to him.

This is exciting to me – not just because it seems to workIMG_4332 (more later), but also that it shifts the way we respond when someone isn’t healed.  Instead of moving down the perilous road of saying it must not be God’s will for someone to be healed, we (the ones trying to heal) can take responsibility for not doing it right, not moving in enough power or not having enough faith.  We can offer to pray again, try to address potential blockages or ask someone else to be involved.  Jordan had something of an equation which identifies four different variables which might be increasing or impeding our power to move in the supernatural works of God:

Authority + Gifting + Faith + Consecration = Power

If you’re interested I’d really encourage you to look at his book, but I’ll try to do some quick explanations for each of the parts from my notes from his talk:

Authority – Jesus gave the disciples authority to go out and heal people, and also commissioned us.  Generally our authority derives from our obedience to Jesus’s directions, so if you are living sinfully, you don’t have much authority to heal.

Gifting – Some people have particular gifts of healing.  We can increase in gifting by asking God, but a quicker solution is to take someone with you who has the gift of healing and work together.  You can also use other gifts like words of knowledge or leadership to build faith.

Faith – This can be about your faith, and the faith of the person seeking healing and others present.  Jesus sometimes cleared out the doubters to increase the faith environment, and encouraged faith in others.  Sharing testimonies of healing is a good way to build faith for healing, but it’s definitely not just about the unwell person’s faith as this can’t be expected from someone too ill or young to understand, and certainly not from someone who is dead…

Consecration – This is about making things sacred and sacrificing.  Setting ourselves aside for God’s use can increase the way he can use us.  This might involve prayer, worship or fasting.

IMG_0124Spending time in prayer or fasting, seeking words of knowledge or sorting out more obedience to God in our lives does start to feel more like work.  It does mean that there might be a reason to feel some sense of achievement, akin to what I might feel if I had put of lot of work into a preach and then felt it went well.  In both cases I should give the glory to God, since any gifting or power came from him, but it feels a bit more like something we are doing together, rather than me purely being a recipient of a miracle.

It seems like there are lots of stories of God on the move in different parts of the world, using his people for works of healing on the streets and seeing amazing breakthrough and many turning to know him.  While the way of praying declaring healing is very familiar to some of my church friends, somehow I had missed this, and it feels like a whole new way of seeking healing is now available.  Even just watching one of the New Wine speakers this week (I think it was Alan Scott from Coleraine in Northern Ireland where they are seeing significant awakening/revival) he prayed for healing for the congregation, and my clunky shoulder just seems to be healed.  I didn’t think about it or pray about it, but I just noticed over the next couple of days that it was better.  I wasn’t pushing it to line it up as I used to in the shower.  This is something that has been a problem since I was a teenager.  I had some physio and exercises to do and generally put it down to bad posture.  I’ve never asked for prayer about it as I’ve always thought it wasn’t a big problem, and that others needs are greater.

But it meant that when I joined some friends on Thursday this week praying for people on IMG_4036the streets in the city centre, that my faith was quite high, and I was able to share that story with a couple of the people we met.  I also saw three or four people experience noticeable healing, two of whom I had the privilege of laying on a hand and simply directing pain to be gone, and the person to be healed in Jesus’ name.  Generally the response was positive and good-natured, even if people said no thanks, or that the pain they had was their friend or companion.  One woman was really touched by our willingness to pray and our compassion as we prayed for her and her mother.  Later that day she phoned my friends to say that her leg was feeling a lot better and her heavy bag became mysteriously light and remained so all the way home.  I don’t want to take the credit actually – I want God to be glorified and for people to get to know him through being healed and hearing stories of healing, but it certainly feels like things are being achieved and that I get to be part of it.  Awesome.

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Navigating the darkness

IMG_0273I’m thinking that if anyone attempts to write a blog post like this, they probably won’t be in the middle of the darkest time.  I know my perspective is easier at the moment and I’m asking you to bear with me if anything I write jars with your more difficult circumstances.  Do comment or come back to me if you want to offer a different point of view.  I preached a sermon yesterday which touched on the issue of unanswered prayer and times when it seems like God is silent or absent.  In it I mentioned several times in my life where I had felt like God was not with me or interested in engaging with me and how sometimes my reaction has been to stop talking to him.

When I joined the Ship of Fools website around 2002, my signature included a quotation from the song ‘A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell.  It read:

Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as the Northern star” and I said
“Constantly in the darkness, where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”.

DSCF1277Although I wasn’t spending a lot of time in bars in those years, I did pretty much stop going to church.  My involvement with the Ship website was an attempt to stay connected with some of the faith issues which were bothering me and to meet some Christians and others on the fringes who might have some wisdom or solidarity to share.  It was a place where otherwise unacceptable views seemed welcome and at times I used it to rant at God.  I asked a bunch of questions about whether a personal relationship with God was a myth, and whether humanity was just a science experiment gone wrong.

The existence of stars and whether we’re looking at something that has already disappeared is also explored in Karine Polwart’s song, ‘Terminal Star’.  I find it both beautiful and melancholy,

You’re a beautiful trace
Across time and space
You’re a thing that once shone
And you still shine bright
In the darkest night
Though you’re already gone

In the bigness of the universe it is hard to fathom how far away things are that we can still see, and the amount of time that light has taken to reach us.  Imagining a relationship with the one who made the stars seems even more far-fetched to many.  Seeing metaphors and meanings in everything over my dramatherapy training made me rather sceptical that any thought occurring to me could be from God, rather than my own messed-up sub1734751022-God_on_Mute_cover_smallconscious.

But I was really moved to read a passage on a similar topic recently by Pete Greig, reluctant progenitor of the current 24-7 Prayer movement and a speaker who really impressed me at the Worship Central training I went to in June.  In his heartfelt and brilliant book, ‘God on mute – Engaging the silence of unanswered prayer’, he writes:

How can [God] be present yet absent?  Perhaps it is like a distant star, flickering faintly in the darkness, whose light we see, without knowing for sure whether the source itself is still there.  Has the star died, or is it still burning brighter than the sun?  We remember times when God seemed to speak to us, or to use us, or to answer our prayer and we determine to stay true to those moments of uncertainty even though the actuality is so alien to our current experience.  And thus, by the distant light of past encounters we may navigate the darkness, like a mariner steering by long-extinguished stars when every other point of reference has disappeared. (p265)

Thinking like this, and being in a period of time where God seems closer and to be speaking to me and using me makes me want to identify some stars to hold on to in the future.  Maybe to help the darkness not seem so dark next time, or to help others find their way.  The experiences I described a few weeks ago where God gave me such clear directions to people and confirmations that neither circumstance could be pure coincidence were real gifts and something one friend suggested was worth framing.  That’s a star for me – not a ‘well done’ gold star but something I want to navigate by in the future.  I’m also holding on to the friend who I prayed for when she was struggling to get pregnant, who now has the two boys she longed for.  That’s not a small thing.  There are other friends I have prayed for over the years including friends of my sister and a university friend who have had very troubled pregnancies but now have healthy children.  You are all my stars.

IMG_0155There are other things I have depended on over the years which I have blogged about before, including a list of faith things that don’t change no matter how I’m feeling.  I know God is my rock and that when I’ve felt like I’ve reached the bottom before, there is something solid there that I can’t give up on.  Most of the time I also recognise the benefit of being part of the church, flawed though it is.  We can be light for each other, as well as for the world.  Another precious piece of prose which captures some of this for me comes from Adrian Plass’s diary aged 45 ¾, where the lovely minister Edwin explains to a doubting friend:

“I am very proud… to own and share the good and the bad, the sense and the silliness in you, Leonard, my dear brother.  I want you to know that your fights and victories are my fights and victories.  Your failures are my failures.  I hope that you can share the good and the bad in me as well – much more bad than you think I’m afraid.  But I do believe in God – this week anyway – so, I tell you what, since we are brothers, and parts of the same body, I’ll hold your unbelief and you can hold my faith.” He smiled.  “That’ll confuse God so much that he’ll put up with both of us.  I think that’s the kind of confusion he likes.  Jesus so wanted us to love each other”. (p211)

So can I encourage you to share the light you have – yoursunset boat crop 2 stars, for the people around you who desperately need a bit of encouragement right now.  And if you feel it’s just too dark, and you’ve given up on God or the church and can’t see anything shiny in your horizon, please find someone else whose little boat has room for you too, and trust the navigating to them for a while.  There are lots of different churches, and there’s even a Ship of Fools.  There are plenty more of us stumbling around but wanting to share the light we’ve found.  There is a hope.

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Honking some encouragement

There’s a lot I love about wild geese and metaphors relating to them.  I heard more about them flying in formation and taking turns to be the leader at the Worship Central conference I went to last week.  The speaker Jock James also talked about how the geese honk to spur on the lead bird, and then how another bird will move from the slip stream to take over the lead for a while.  He also said how if for any reason a bird drops out of formation, due to illness or exhaustion, two birds from the back will fly down with them as support, and then where possible, accompany the bird back to the v grouping once they have recovered.  There’s more about some of these ideas from Ron Pereira here.

lake geeseThe sound of wild geese may not be the most melodic, but it’s certainly powerful.  Mary Oliver describes it as ‘harsh and exciting’ in her poem Wild Geese, which was read out at the end of a very inspiring keynote speech at a work conference I attended today and yesterday.  The keynote speaker Alison Phipps mentioned being part of the Iona Community as part of where she gets her emotional support and energy, as well as enjoying her garden and time knitting.  I’ve written before about how I have had spiritually nourishing times on Iona and I’m planning to return there this summer as well.  Some of the worship team from the Iona Community publish under the ‘Wild Goose Resource Group’ banner, and it was from them that I heard about the wild goose as a celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit, and I like the goose as a contrast to the gentle dove – it seems more powerful and potentially agitating, but in a good way.

The conference today and yesterday was about Troubling Research, and Alison shared powerfully from her own work including with refugee and asylum seeker groups and individuals and others from around the world.  Many of us were moved by her stories and the way she shared very personally from her life and experiences hosting refugees, including an adopted daughter from Eritrea whose incredibly difficult journey to be allowed to stay in the UK touched on extremes of humanity and inhumanity.  I was encouraged by the way Alison’s research emphatically involves, empowers and gives voice to the people she meets, and felt inspired and not a little provoked to do more myself.

One of the workshops included the chance to write based on a snoopy typewriterSnoopy cartoon, but from a different perspective.  We had just one minute to write ‘stream of consciousness’ style which definitely felt like a therapeutic opportunity, like some of the metaphor work I have done in dramatherapy in the past.  Writing from the bird Woodstock’s perspective, I saw a little friend passionately encouraging Snoopy to write and have a go and share his story.  Woodstock probably tweets more than honks, but some of the phrases are definitely ones I have used with friends and students, exhorting them to write it down – as one colleague would say, don’t get it right, get it written.

I’ve definitely got a clear role in encouraging students with their writing and research now, but actually I was feeling more like Snoopy, needing motivation and someone like an enthusiastic Woodstock who believed in me and was interested in what I have to say and the words and research papers and songs I have to share.  It was great to then go on to share some songs with one of the workshop groups at the conference today.  If you’ve read this far, dear reader, you could be a key encourager for me, so please do feedback somehow and encourage me, particularly if anything I write is of any encouragement to you.  I have been motivated to write more songs after the recent Worship Central event and will be leading one at church on Sunday, so I’m really hoping people will join in, sing or clap or honk along. Honk!

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Finding Mr Right

When I told my friends and colleagues that I was going to a Worship Central conference last week I generally kept my expectations fairly low, except, I said wistfully, you never know… I might just meet a nice single Christian man.  The chances of meeting a guy with shared faith and interests including music seemed better than usual at an event with 100 worship leaders from around the world.  Of course, I joked, he’ll probably be about 20.  The Worship Central crowd generally seem pretty young and in my general experience, Christian guys I meet nearer my own age are usually married.  All these generalisations only go so far though, as I’m not looking for a whole cohort of guys, just the right one.

The weekI was also hoping to be inspired to do some more song-writing, and hoping to hear from God one way or another.  The kids in my church have recently been practising listening to God for words for people, particularly about healing, and I’ve been impressed by how simple they have made it, encouraged by methods from the Catalyst festival and other places.  They just went through a series of questions to God to narrow down whether the word was for a man or a woman, what camp site area they were staying in, what part of the body was sick, any other identifying features.  They then were really brave in sharing these words and many people matched up to what had been heard and went forward for prayer, and some received healing.  It wasn’t 100% accurate but it was simple and built their faith to hear from God.  Seemed like something more adults should try, I thought.

So during the evening times of worship and meeting with God, when I felt like God was bringing a word or a particular passage of the Bible to my mind, I asked him who it was for.  Normally in my smaller church congregation I would have shared a Bible passage that I felt God was speaking about that seemed relevant with the whole meeting, but this was a bigger meeting with more going on.  The first night when we were encouraged to pray about healing I felt I had a word for a guy with a dark green raincoat.  I couldn’t spot that raincoat over the rest of the week – but do get in touch if you think it might be you!

On the Tuesday night, I felt God gave me a passage from yellow_tshirtthe Bible for a guy with a yellow T shirt.  Moving around the room I found the guy, passed on the (not too controversial) word and he was encouraged by it.  That felt great.  The following morning I was talking to a few people, trying to find out which of the attendees at the conference were from Germany as I am hopefully going to be spending more time there with work in the coming years (Erasmus/EU funding permitting!).  I found one guy who ended up coming from the complete opposite corner of Germany.  But he pointed me to someone else who lived much nearer where I was talking about.  In fact he was from the city near where I am going, and had links in the town where I will be working.  Oh, and he was the yellow T shirt guy who I’d had the word for the night before.  That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  God had given me a real way in to being trusted by this guy, and we shared contact details and I really hope to see him and some of his contacts again when I go (So Gott will) to Germany.

mens-navy-official-captain-america-shield-solid-body-t-shirt-p28334-50389_mediumThat evening, God brought to my mind a passage of the Bible which could arguably have been shared with the whole group, as it really fitted with the topic of the evening and the way people were being invited to pray.  I wasn’t sure about going up the front with it, as I felt like I’d already contributed quite a lot with a part of a song during the sung worship time.  So again, I asked God who it was for, and what came to mind was the Captain America shield logo which I envisaged on someone’s shirt.  I didn’t see anyone with the Captain America logo anywhere, so I didn’t share it, but I was still really enthused as the conference ended.  There had been so much good teaching and times of worship and prayer where the Holy Spirit had moved powerfully.

I’d asked a question about supporting and mentoring women who are going into leadership roles and felt encouraged by the response to this which called on men to support these women as well as women to be role models.  One talk by Rachel Hughes on Seasons in life prompted me to look back on my life and see the way God had been building leadership training and skills throughout the different jobs and places I have been, even though I’ve mostly been in churches which haven’t encouraged this so much.  We’ve talked lately about how while young men showing leadership traits seem to get lots of invitations to be mentored and shadow church leaders in different areas, young women don’t seem to be offered the same opportunities.  Partly this may be due to there being fewer female role models or an understandable reluctance to promote intense discipling relationships between a man and a woman.  Perhaps some churches are looking for Mr Right to move into leadership ministry, while overlooking Miss, Mrs or Dr Right?

But also, maybe I’ve been waiting for Mr Right before expecting God to use me.  I know I really need support and encouragement to step out into new things for God, and part of desperately wanting a partner has been wanting someone who will see the best in me and encourage me to be what God wants me to be, while needing my support to be the best he can be for God as well.  I guess I’ve imagined my future as potentially a pastor’s wife or elder’s wife, where the opportunities to lead come as a couple.  I know how I can get burnt-out when I try to do too much on my own, and I really don’t feel called to be single.  But I also don’t want to put limits on what God wants to do through me.

Hub The Week

Thanks to my great Hub group over The Week, and to everyone at Worship Central for an amazing time.

So I’m trying to move on with some of the ideas that came up over the week of training.  There’s another woman at church who is feeling motivated to lead some sort of prayer course which really seems to fit with the Prayer Course I was inspired to investigate further after some great teaching by Pete Greig.  I wrote a song based on the riff I’d sung out on the Wednesday evening, asking God to let us know more of his love for us, and for his world, and then show more of that love.  I taught it to the group at our church prayer meeting on Sunday night and have been asked to use it next time I lead worship in church.  And I still believe God can lead me to the right person at the right time.  Mr Captain America shirt was sitting in front of me on the bus yesterday morning.  I jotted down the word and gave it to him in quite a low key way and he seemed very grateful.  His partner/friend next to him got out the Bible app on her phone and found the verses, and I think they were both encouraged.  I guess if it’s a choice right now, of finding Mr Right or finding more of God’s presence and purposes for me and my life, then I need to prioritise and let God come first.

P.S. – Check out the comment below for Captain America’s side of the story! Awesome.

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Seeing what’s real

DSCF9513 editBeing a tourist is a weird experience. I enjoyed my recent trip to Italy with my mum very much, but it kind of felt like we went to Venice-land. Venice is so tourist oriented that it is too expensive for many local people to live there. Instead they live on the mainland and bus in to their jobs in hotels, restaurants and shops in the unique city where everyone travels on foot or by boat. Birmingham may have more canals but we also have exponentially more roads. Our few days in Florence were quite a shock as we suddenly had to get out of the way of many cars, taxis and the ubiquitous mopeds.

We saw beautiful buildings and gardens, museums and galleries as well as eating mostly lovely food in medium priced restaurants. I guess Venice and Florence have always catered to the more middle class travellers but it felt a bit like what was on offer was now so much more targeted. Many places clearly thrived or suffered on their TripAdvisor reviews. Most people spoke English and didn’t seem too bothered if you made an effort to speak any Italian or not (although we did try).Piazza San Marco

I’d encountered some pushy street sellers on my visits to Italy before but the selfie stick sellers were something else. At every key viewpoint or site in either city there were many men, often of African or Middle Eastern origin desperate to sell you this technical arm extension to allow you to capture yourself within the famous view you were ignoring in order to take the picture. Somehow it’s not about what you see but that you can be seen to be there. I actually did take a few selfies with my mum (using my arm) and this seemed novel enough to capture her smiling which is a rarity in a photograph. But this was a real reflection of us on a trip that we absolutely enjoyed, even while I was doubting that we were seeing the real Venice, or if the real Venice even exists to be seen any more.

We did tend to avoid the busiest parts a lot of the time, seeking out quieter restaurants and a trip out to the islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello as well as a trip out from Florence to Fiesole. However, even these were recommended by guidebooks and attracted plenty of IMG_3738tourists. Burano has to be one of the most deliberately photogenic places I have ever visited with rows of houses painted in various bright colours alongside canals and bridges. Articles I have found state how this dates back many years and is about helping fishermen to identify their houses through the fog. I’m really not sure I’m convinced as it seems like a perfect gimmick to attract tourists to visit a small place where there really isn’t that much else to look at. There were plenty of shops selling lace for which the island is famous, but I was sceptical that many of the items were particularly local.

Similarly Murano is famous for glass, and there were numerous shops here and on the main Venice islands selling jewellery and other items from the brightly coloured glass which may have been made on Murano, made from Murano glass but assembled elsewhere or inspired by Murano glass but entirely from China. Depending on your budget you could buy the genuine, authenticated item, a piece of related glassware or a cheaper knockoff – some of which looked much cheaper and nastier but others of which might have been quite convincing.

The masks which are also a part of the Venice mythology may also imported and machine formed in plastic or they may be locally made of the traditional leather or cartapesta (papier-mâché) and painted in the shop – they even had some mask painting workshops for tourists. When I went to Venice in 1999 I got chatting to a man in a mask shop who showed me more about making the cartapesta versions and I used the skills later in my drama degree and dramatherapy work. This felt like a much more genuine experience of mask making, although of course, masks by their nature allow you to put on a front and conceal what’s underneath.

But any good drama or dramatherapy student will tell you how work with masks can also be revealing, and that in portraying even a stereotypical part we may get in touch with a deeper and hidden part of ourselves. And similarly, I think there was something revealing about the Venice experience, however inauthentic. The rampant consumer culture where almost all the shops and services were targeted specifically at tourists, hotels which sought to look the part even if underlying corners were cut to reduce costs and maximise profits, IMG_3793even that selfie stick which made it all about you and looking good on social media. I think this does say something about our society and about what the average tourists wants, even while they scour the guidebooks and websites for the unspoilt corners and the authentic restaurant that is popular with locals but will also supply an attractive Instagram picture of your meal you can upload using the free wifi.

The heat was real, and the peeling paint and graffiti once you got off the main tourist tracks also seemed more real. My affection for my mum and our occasional mis-steps with public transport and baby octopuses made for a bit more reality too. While some service seemed more formulaic, there were staff in one hotel who did make more of an effort to be more personally welcoming. I guess you need an insider track to get to see the real place underneath and I have been lucky enough to get this through hospitality with more local people when I have visited Canada, Bolivia and Peru and even back in 99 when I was inter-railing, feeling more like a traveller than a tourist.

But I guess most people go on holiday to get away from real life and to experience a fantasy dream world where you don’t have to work, where it’s all about having fun, relaxing, or seeing beautiful, interesting places and things. Maybe I should stop analysing it all and just be grateful and show you some nice photographs. Even if it wasn’t real, it was lovely.

IMG_3782 IMG_3783 IMG_3784IMG_3785IMG_3840 IMG_3885

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Pitching your song

One of the things I like most about the folk club I attend fairly regularly is the frequency of singers’ nights and the encouragement to join in. I don’t think I’ve ever been with a group of people so keen to sing a chorus or refrain or harmonise on the spot to songs on themes ranging from seafaring to mining, love songs and tragedies, traditional and more recent songs in a very broad interpretation of ‘folk’ style. Even on guest nights, a few audience members are invited to sing ‘floor spots’, which last week included a visiting friend of the club who sang ‘When All Men Sing’ – a poem by Keith Scowcroft set to music by Derek Gifford. The chorus practically demands participation from the audience and we certainly obliged:

Let every man so pitch his song to help his neighbour sing along
To each and all contentment bring, when all men sing.

The song sings round the seasons of the year and mentions singing in inns (as we do), praising the Lord and singing as you work as well. I really like the sentiment of the song and it harmonises really nicely (as in this version where composer Derek Gifford is part of the group singing with Mike Nicholson). My only reservation is that the lyrics don’t quite acknowledge that your neighbour might be a woman. I wouldn’t argue that the lyrics need changing but perhaps I need to write an extra verse sometime.

A more frequent frustration to me at the moment is that some Christian songwriters and worship leaders seem not to acknowledge that around half or more of the congregation are likely to be women (or sing alto/bass). This leads to songs like Matt Redman’s recent ‘Sing and Shout’ covering a range from a mid G# to a high F#. I can sing it along in the same octave as he does but I have a lower than average female voice. The top F# (yellow/orange below) is rare, but almost the entirety of the bridge “What could be better than a grace…” is on a high E. I’m afraid I would argue that he’s pitched the song wrong in terms of allowing a congregation to sing along. Perhaps you’re supposed to shout that bit?  While the chords in G (capo 2) as he has written it are easy, putting it in D or even C would be much more singable for the whole congregation. Played in D it only goes down to a C# but the top note is a much more manageable B (all notes blue).

keys in colours

Bob Kauflin, songwriter, worship leader and author of the excellent book ‘Worship Matters’ wrote a blog post back in 2009 where he addressed the challenges of ‘Finding The Right Key To Sing In’. He suggests a general rule of keeping between a low A and a high D (blue or green above), although there may be reasons to change this if a lot of the notes are at one end of this spectrum. The most comfortable notes for everyone are probably the blue octave from C to C, so when a song doesn’t cover more than an octave there seems little excuse for it to go down as low as a G (which I love but I know it doesn’t suit everyone – yellow) or up as high as the E (also yellow) that makes up the bridge of ‘Sing and Shout’. Seriously, 23 top Es, a top F# and a C# does not make a singable refrain. I’m afraid it’s at times like this that I sit down in church and try to pray or read the Bible rather than getting cross.

Other things that sometimes cause me to disengage from worship are about a different kind of pitch – more the tone of the song. Songs that focus on me and how I feel rather than on praising God, songs that are hard to understand, songs that just seem not to say much at all – these seem such a waste when there are so many better songs out there. There’s a place for songs that say how much we love God, but generally I would rather sing about his great love than my love for him. My love for God is sometimes weak, always imperfect, never as much as he deserves. In contrast his love for us is immeasurable, unchanging, awesome – no matter how I feel, I believe it is right to declare these truths about God. In fact, declaring them may help shift how I am feeling.  A great example is Matt Redman’s Holy – solid truth and pitched between C and D#.  Thank you Matt.

Particularly at the start of a time of worship I’d make a strong argument for a song that most people know, pitched in a singable key and focusing on the greatness of God or the wonderful love of Jesus. There are also some gathering songs which are particularly designed for opening worship (They often start ‘Come’).  Possibly my favourite gathering song is in Shona – Uyai Mose, made popular in the UK by the Iona Community. Using songs in other languages can be inclusive and accessible but they need to be sufficiently simple for the whole congregation to understand and learn and pronounce the words. This song only contains five different words:

Uyai mose tinamate Mwari (x3)
Uyai mose zvino.

It’s translated “Come all you people, come and praise your maker, Come now and worship the Lord”. It harmonises beautifully – when I was in a tent at Greenbelt some years ago they had the whole congregation singing in four part harmony so you could choose the part that suited your voice but actually in the book I have, all four parts fit between the recommended low A to high D except the highest cantor part which hits a few top Es. I’d say that’s pitched so everyone can sing along.

IMG_3542The guests at folk club on Friday were ‘The Foxglove Trio’ and they sang a mix of songs in English and Welsh as well as using their cellos, melodeon, whistle and guitar for a range of tunes. I enjoyed the evening although the number of songs in Welsh put me off buying their CD a bit. They did encourage us to sing along to various choruses, even teaching us a few words of Welsh. But the song that raised the roof was the floor singer I mentioned earlier with ‘When All Men Sing’. As one of the committee put it, it could have been written for the club.

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