Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Much more than that!

The Scriptures employ a wide range of pictures to help us grasp the many facets of our relationship with God. If you consider them in a sort of ascending order, there is a noticeable and utterly breathtaking progression.

Formerly, of course, we were enemies of God, subject to judgement and condemnation. We were dismissive of God or outwardly rebellious; yet he has wooed us, won us, drawn us, called us and saved us. We were running way from him; but in his love he revealed himself to us, encouraged us to turn around and run towards him (repentance) and has changed our hearts so that instead of resisting him, we yield to him. From our former state we have been raised from one degree of glory to another.

We are the clay and he is the Potter. We start out as little more than a clod of earth; perhaps distinctive in colour and texture, and with some potential, but without much glory or use. His loving, creative hands shape us, mould us, form something beautiful and worthwhile from an otherwise unpromising lump. He puts form and character into our random rawness. The firing process purifies us and we end up as a vessel into which he will joyfully pour his Spirit, to the point of overflowing, and will continue to do so. And from within this vessel of clay come streams of living water, an outflowing of refreshing for the world.

Moving up a notch, we are the sheep and he is the Shepherd, which is a little better position on the food chain but hardly flattering; sheep don’t have a reputation as the most graceful and intelligent creatures in the world. However, it has to said that sheep work well as a team, knowing how to follow their master, and serve a valuable function for society in terms of wool for clothing and blankets, milk and later meat for nourishment and with a helpful lawnmoving service thrown in. Yet he cares for us, watches over us, counts us out of the fold and back in again. He knows us by name, will protect us from enemies such as thieves and wolves, will lay down his life for us. He will seek us out and rescue us when we go astray, bringing us home with great rejoicing.

Moving upward, we are the servants of the Master, which at least lets us into the house, even if we have to wipe our feet, watch our manners, and not talk too much. We have the dignity of belonging to the household, of work and of serving a just and honest Master. Our tasks may be lowly, but we know the Master is concerned to keep us healthy; he does not beat us into submission but deserves our respect by his faithfulness to us.

Are you content to be a servant? The ladder of metaphors is about to make a swift ascent.

God also calls us his children and calls himself our heavenly Father, which brings us into the privileged possibility of real emotional closeness — love is not one of the things a drinking vessel or chamber pot and its craftsman share together, nor does a sheep truly know the heart of the shepherd, though it may enjoy the fruits of his kindness a servant may be granted access to the home, but a child truly belongs. A Father loves and protects and trains and seeks the best for his children; a Father gives good gifts, nurtures, teaches and disciplines his little ones. He gathers them around him and tells them his secrets and shares family life with them, communicating to them that they belong and are valuable. So precious. And provides an inheritance of more riches than they can imagine. He would shed his blood for his own. Still, there is something more than even the best parent-child relationship.

Friendship levels the playing field in a way family never can, at least not until the kids have grown up; perhaps not until they have attained adulthood themselves. Friendship opens a level of communion that a five-year-old can’t know with his mother and father. Friendship speaks of two-way flow, mutual trust and support, honour and esteem. There may still be elements of discipleship, and there will certainly be a pooling of strengths and weaknesses, with one providing assistance to the other. In this friendship, the support and help always flows from God, but he esteems us as friends, granting us the honour of that title. We were once enemies of God, rebelling or careless about him; now we are friends.

Do you rejoice in eing a friend of God? While this is completely amazing, there is san even higher and deeper level of intimacy and partnership awaiting us at the top of this metaphorical ascent.

We are lovers. The courtship began with a honeymoon in the Garden. It deteriorated into disaster and unfaithfulness for a long time but has culminated in the wedding feast of the Lamb. ‘I will take delight in you,’ he says to us, ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will I rejoice over you.’ This is so that we might say in return, ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me; his banner over me is love.’ The ultimate level of closeness and intimacy (considering we were once enemies of God) is reflected in this title. Let us not be dismissive of the role of the Church as the Bride of Christ, but rejoice greatly that we are to be comforted, caressed, protected, loved, esteemed, honoured, welcomed, sought after and nurtured as a bridegroom with his wife. How glorious is that! And it's the first time that the phrase so often used of newlyweds is actually appropriate: they live happily ever after.

Judge/enemy - Ephesians 2:3
Potter/clay - Jeremiah 18:3-6
Shepherd/sheep - Psalm 23:1
Master/servant - John 13:14
Father/son - John 1:12
Friend/friend - John 15:14
Lover/lover - Song of Solomon 7:10

I enjoy the process of reviewing; here's the latest post on my website - the excellent new album from my dear friends Phatfish.

In Jesus
It is with great anticipation that I place the new Phatfish CD in the tray and press the correct button. But what’s this? Robert Palmer? Eric Satie?

Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself.

What we have here is a new release from a new line-up, having added two guitarists, a brother-in-law and two sister-in-law’s brother-in-law to the band. Confused? Now read on. So here I am expecting a flashback to the days of Alan Rose, with a lovely raw Les Paul rasp, plus the twang of Telecaster to help fill in any gaps. I’m also expecting Lou’s quality vocals, the best rhythm section in Christendom, Hammond pyrotechnics and class poetry to transport my soul toward the throne of God. Did I get my money’s worth?

Darkness into Light
The cover is clean and simple, with a stage lighting motif, (close-ups of par-cans) which is
thematically sprinkled throughout by the crisp design of Jules Burt. God is the light in the darkness, which perhaps inspired her design. An inlay card pic of the band in a boozer, obviously waiting for their drinks order to arrive, shows all the boys in subdued dimness, but Lou sympathetically illumined, which is one way of looking at them.

The title track and opener combines Addicted to Love with Twain’s That Don’t Impress Me Much, but not in a crossover Country ‘n’ Western way. (And not in a way that makes me consider the men in the band doing that knee-waggling dance, either.) But the gusty power chords and B3 provide a instant hook for the content-packed lyric that Nathan’s songs always deliver. Great to hear the angry wasp solo guitar sound again (oh, how I’ve missed it!). It’s a song that will run and run, becoming a loved anthem for big crowds.

Whoops - I did it again
By contrast Who is like the Lord our God may catch a few congregations out, with the inclusion of a few surprise 2/4 bars, which means the lyrics come in a breath or two before you expect them. This gives the song a measure (half-measure, if you’re a yank) of urgency, and demonstrates the signature Phatfish grown-up approach to music, not settling for the easy listening middle ground beloved of so many also-ran worship-song writers, but prepared to give room for something a little inventive or unsettling. Lou’s double-tracked chorus vocals send me misty-eyed as I recognised a sound I love and will listen to for a long, long time.

But then something rather unexpected begins to happen. It’s positive, so, so welcome, almost forgotten and really very skilful. More of this later.

Lou’s close mike technique, clarity of diction and superb breath control are to the fore in Come to Jesus, a simple but powerful declaration of Christ’s ability and desire to be at the centre of our lives. The rhymes in verse two are much more satisfying to my ears (secure/poor/cure/more) and the middle eight is a magnificent piece of work, deserving perhaps of more development, restatement etc.

The good, surprising thing continues, quite splendidly.

Stairway to Heaven
Mission starts with a Led Zep-esque lick, drawing us into a song of grand scale and purpose. Big bee-vees turn up in the chorus, which is reminiscent of There is a Day, which is fair enough and probably a good idea.

The surprising thing – oh, I can’t keep this up, and there’s no reason to keep you in suspense any longer.

The addition of a pair of axemen made me anticipate the rasp of multiple humbuckers, with acoustic strums and sweet arpeggios and perhaps the occasional twang and maybe a grind or chug or even a rip, as well as the licks and powerchords. And all of those are delivered superbly. But what this album also features is quite excellent Sandem
an keyboard work, brought once again to the fore, when I had not expected it to be there in such prominence. His Hammond chords are always reliable, but here are hugely interesting synth sounds, piano skills aplenty and interpretive additions and themes which add vast depth to the sense that this album has been produced with time, care, thought, not a little money and considerable musicianship.

Most Phatfish albums have a poetic highpoint beyond the already high standard of writing; often these are the Sandeman tracks. But Lou has penned If I have not love, a powerful creative reworking of part of 1 Corinthians 13, using contemporary examples of behaviour and attitudes which are empty without heart-expression of love. ‘I could look as though I’m listening or cry at my tv/But it really stands for nothing if it’s only serving me.’ Bertie supports alone to begin with, joined by acoustic guitar strumming and then by the rest of the band, which builds the song towards the bee-vee second chorus, middle eight and then an outstanding but disappointingly brief Lightning Seeds-esque piano solo.

Larger than Life
Sandeman theological heavyweightness powers through the anthemic Pardoned, with a huge chorus and glorious statements of Bible truth, accompanied by all-stops Hammond, thrash-all-you’re-worth tambourine and full-on bee-vees, as well as power chords and some understated guitar solos. Nathan’s controlled but appropriately busy work around the kit stands out as well.

Magnificently, we’re back to Shania, with a Man I feel like a Woman lick underpinning No one like our God. Again, it’s not in a bad way. It’s in a way that also reminds me strongly of Bryn Haworth’s No Time, but I suspect that’s just me and wasn’t intentional. I like the way the lick is given room to breathe between chorus and verse in ways that worship songs rarely allow, as they usually feel the need to rush on to the next chunk of worthy lyric. This song also has some experimental moog-style knob twiddling, which is shockingly fresh and inventive, although probably achieved by on-screen slider manipulation via a large black box of electronic trickery.

Strength of Character
A three-way collaboration between Jos, Lou & Nathan has generated There is Mercy, which drives along like a Road Trip soundtrack, complete with angry wasp. A great signature Phatfish tacit moment at 3’09", with a big, explosive re-entry at 3’15”. Fantastically good song, with great musical strength. Will probably open many a festival worship time this summer, and perhaps long into the future.

Bertie stands out again in the tender worship song God you are my God, focussed on the Father’s compassionate understanding that life can be really tough. ‘Though the pain is strong/You give me strength to hope through the storm.’ Knowing about some of the agony Sarah-Jane (to whom the song is dedicated) has had to face this year makes this warm, almost haunting expression of genuine friendship without empty platitudes a moving piece. Hopefully other listeners will appreciate it as an expression of strength for those in various kinds of pain. The piano motif throughout is strongly memorable.

A dotted rhythm and uncharacteristically empty verse arrangement sets up He watches over me. Luke’s almost-walking line is thoroughly engaging, and the middle eight is another triumph of fascinating chords with worshipful expressions of delight. And then, disastrously, it’s over… I was left wanting more, which must be a good thing. So I listened again and enjoyed it even more the next time around.

There’s a maturity about this album that reflects the complicated journey on which the guys have been recently, yet their dependency on God and joy in his mercy shine through all the sadness. It’s not Bride of Heavenbound, understandably, but it’s right up there among the top two Phatfish abums. And in the top five worship albums of all time; oh yes, it’s that good.

Top Five Worship Albums of All Time
1 Phatfish Heavenbound
2 Kate Simmonds One Day
3 David Fellingham In Power Resplendent
4 Phatfish In Jesus
5 Israel & New Breed Real