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Finding Your Religion

 

The ways that people come to religion and to Jesus Christ are infinite. Some like the brilliant Christian writer C S Lewis (‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ including ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’) came “kicking, struggling, resentful and darting my eyes in every direction for a chance to escape”, and had his Epiphany at, of all places, Whipsnade Zoo (“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the Zoo I did”).

Others feel the warm embrace of God much sooner in their lives. The most beautiful story I heard was how the late (and very great) Sister and Carmelite Nun Wendy Beckett -who came to huge public notice and acclaim late in life as the most improbably of art critics in TV history through her 1990’s BBC series- met God.

For her, it happened on a Sunday morning, when she was only 3 or 4, she was sitting under her family’s breakfast table as they were eating sausages. She recalled that she could smell the sausages, she could feel the carpet and hear the local marching band and then something happened:

And I became conscious of God. It was an overwhelming experience of greatness, of goodness and of protection. I remember feeling with wonder that the world- so bewildering to a little child-made sense and that it was God’s world, and that I was a blessed child within it. If you ask how I knew, I cannot tell you. I saw nothing and heard nothing. But from then on, God was always with me, the centre of all I did, giving it significance.

I think also of actor and Anglican David Suchet (most famous as TV’s Hercule Poirot) who became a Christian whilst in a hotel bathtub in Washington. He had been thinking of his late grandfather:

I always felt that he was with me as my spiritual guide. I felt him sitting on my shoulder. Then I thought to myself, ‘why do I believe that and not believe in life after death?’. That got me thinking about the most famous person who they say had a life after death, Jesus”.

It led him to read St Paul’s epistles and this is what he found:

“I chose it because I knew that somebody called Paul actually existed. I knew that he wrote letters, and that they are there for everyone to see. By the end of the letter, certainly by the end of the book, I was reading about a way of being and a way of life that I had been looking for all those years.”

I think what these examples show us is that in order to know Jesus you do not have to become very learned, or go to theological college, or have to take part in some special form of meditative practice or ritual, or even to be in a particularly holy place.

God can come to you wherever you are and whatever you are doing. It can be in the most unlikely of settings -you could be cleaning your teeth, walking around the town, or taking your children to school. But when it happens it is significant and needs your attention.

It can take time for you to believe, or as in the case of Sister Wendy above it can be instant, and it changes your life (and that of others) for ever. It is a precious thing. I pray it happens to you.

"Be Thou my Wisdom and Thou my true Word"

I am sure we all have hymns that mean a lot to us, and to choose a personal favourite can be a really difficult thing to do, because so many are personal, that are linked to a special time, a particular person or experience.

For me, one that means a lot is ‘Be Thou My Vision’. I find that it is the perfect blend of a strong, almost mystical melody combined with poetic words with real depth and meaning, that have come down the ages, to sum up my feelings about God.

The origins of the hymn itself though are unclear but I think that just adds to its mystical appeal. It is believed that the words that we now know, were originally based on an Irish poem or ’lorica’ – a form of protection prayer that was written somewhere between the 6th and 11th century. Written in what was known as Old Irish, the person who most scholars think wrote the original text was St Dallan (meaning ‘little blind one’).

St Dallan was an early Irish Christian poet, who-the story goes- became blind after studying too intensively. After later writing in praise of Columbia who was largely responsible for spreading Christianity through Scotland, St Dallan miraculously regained his sight, and it is believed ‘Be Though My Vision’ was at some point written by him. The words we now sing were translated from old Irish to English first by Mary Byrne in 1901, and finally to the more familiar ones by Eleanor Hull in 1912.

The tune of the hymn is also a rather familiar one known as ‘slane’ and when you next sing ‘Lord of All Hopefulness’ (written by Jan Struther – also incidentally was also the author of ‘Mrs Miniver’ which later became the classic film starring Greer Garson) you will notice that the music is the same.

However good the music is, the lyrics and words are the soul of any hymn, and here ‘Be Though My Vision’ uses some really vivid imagery to illustrate what we are singing:

“Be Thou my Breastplate, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my whole Armour, be Thou my true Might;

Be Thou my soul’s Shelter, be Thou my strong Tow’r,

O raise Thou me heav’ward great Pow’r of my pow’r”

This echoes what Ephesians 6:16-17 has to say when St Paul talks about:

“With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God”

This is fairly violent imagery, but it was originally written at a time when there were regular battles and wars across clans and what this Hymn is saying is that only God is our Protector.

When we get to verse 3, we sing about what we do not need and what we have:

Riches I heed nor man’s empty praise;

Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always;

Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart,

O high king of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

This takes us back to Matthew 6:20:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust do corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”

In short, we have all we need in Christ.

I think you can tell that I really like ‘Be Though My Vision’ and in my book there is only one version of it – which is the 1991 version laid down by the suitably Northern Irish soul/R&B man Van ‘The Man’ Morrison on the suitably apt album 'Hymns to the Silence'- you can listen below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h-bbvmu0YY

“We’re all doing church now!”

 

It seems that at the moment we are all ‘doing church’. I have been struck by the number of people with hobbies, interests, and activities, who during the lockdown talk about what they do as “their church”- and that they cannot wait to get back to it.

An example recently was with the BBC’s flagship film programme ‘(Mark) Kermode and (Simon) Mayo’s Film Review’ on Radio 5 Live and now on BBC 4 where they were lamenting not being able to go to the cinema – which they regard as “their church”. As a real film buff myself, I can sympathise with them, until the Cineworld, Odeon and Empire cinemas open up again.

However another ‘church’ recently re-opened and that was the return of live football, in Germany -their Bundesliga action similar to our Premier League started up this past weekend- and many, like myself, have felt quite deprived at not being able to go and support (or watch on TV) our team. I have always felt that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Football. Here’s why.

But first, a confession. From the age of 11 I have been supporting my local team (September 2021 will in fact be my 50th anniversary of first watching the club) -Charlton Athletic- you may not have heard of us but we are  a South London club ( I was born in nearby Woolwich), we used to have the biggest ground in the country and we have won the FA Cup. In 1947. Apart from a number of glorious years in the Premier League, we have been, like now, struggling, and if the English Football League gets it way, we are likely to get relegated to League 1.

So, I have supported ‘The ‘Addicks’ (don’t ask!) through thick and thin (mostly thick) and been a Season Ticket holder there for over 30 years, and through that time I have noticed how similar the ritual of supporting your team and a game can have some parallels with going to Church and honouring the only Lord:

  • You generally go to the same place at the same time on the same day each week- a ground rather than a church
  • You have a form of liturgy in how you support or worship your side which you share with others believe as you do. Fans generally live in the same community -rather than a parish
  • You usually wear something to show who you believe in- your colours rather than a cross
  • You sing songs in praise of your team- chants rather than hymns
  • You go to sometimes incredible lengths to support your team, including spending extraordinary amounts of your time and money to support them- money on season tickets rather than Giving, and time travelling there rather than volunteering
  • You praise your team in an ecstatic state when you score or win something (not likely if you support Charlton)- hands up in the air if you score rather than in recognition of the Lord

Now I have to give a huge health warning here. As important as football and your own team is to you, you know that it is a false religion- your own team , believe it or not, is not the greatest, and despite what every fan will tell you, it is actually just a game, and as a Christian you should know that it is Jesus and not a mere football team who you should be truly devoted to.

That said, football is an incredible force. Take Charlton away from me, and I would probably be a different and a lesser person. I have had some of my most enjoyable experiences in life watching us play-I have hugged people I have never known, in celebration. I have ended up in parts of the country in places I never expected to go to, I have made and met life friends who I share nothing with other than the fact that we support the same team and are bonded together through that. The one thing you do not do as a football fan is change the team you support.

I remember going to a funeral some years ago. For over 20 years I have sat at our ground with Lucy and Hannah and their father Bernard. The sisters first sat there when they were probably 12 or 13 and have now matured into two wonderful women. Bernard died suddenly and apart from his lovely family one of his greatest loves was Charlton. At his funeral he had the Charlton flag on his coffin and the opening music to his service was our theme song ‘When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)’. That’s how much football can mean to communities and individuals.

There is another very important connection between Christianity and Football. A host of football clubs came into being through 19th century church Rectors, Ministers and Priests who believed in what became known as ‘Muscular Christianity’ i.e. to encourage healthy minds and health bodies- in short, to stop young boys getting into trouble.

For example, Everton football club were founded by St Domingo’s Methodist Church (there is still a church adjoining their Goodison Park ground). In London, Fulham FC were originally the Fulham St Andrew’s Church Sunday School FC. Manchester City were formed as a result of a side put together by two Church Wardens at St Mark’s church in East Manchester who were trying to curb local gang violence. On the south coast, Southampton FC were originally St Mary’s Church, Southampton whilst in Scotland, Celtic FC was founded at St Mary’s Church Hall, Calston in Glasgow.

The challenge for Christians though is this: how do we get the hundreds of thousands of people-especially the men- who go to football each Saturday to come to Church to praise and worship with the same passion and the same exuberance as they do at Old Trafford, The Emirates, St James Park and yes The Valley (Charlton). 

'Tell me are you a Christian, child?", and I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

 Music and song are so important. Probably more than even a medium such as film, a particular melody or a song can move us, inspire us, define us, ground us and the very, very best of them can bring us closer to God.

For me one such composition is the hauntingly beautiful ‘Walking in Memphis’ written in 1991 by the American folk-rock singer Marc Cohn. So, why this song?

Well, Cohn has said it is “100% autobiographical” and soulfully tells of his spiritual awakening and how he was transfixed and transformed through it. He wrote it after going through a very difficult time. He was 28 and working as a session singer, ached to get a recording contract, but never thought it would happen as he had not been able to write a “great song”.

Then he was encouraged to visit the city of Memphis to find inspiration, being told that there were two places there “that would change me forever”.

The first place he visited was the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on a Sunday morning to hear the Rev Al Green preach. Now Al Green is probably better known as ‘The last of the Great Soul singers’ (‘Let’s Stay Together’ is his best-known hit), but Green felt God had called for him to change his life, he then became Born Again and he established his church near Graceland.

This is what happened during that church service: “I soon had chills running up and down my spine. The service was so deeply moving that I found myself with sweat running down my face and tears in my eyes, totally enveloped by everything I was seeing and hearing. There was something incredibly powerful about Al Green’s voice in that context. Even after 3 hours of continuous singing, his voice only got stronger and his band only got better. I sat there crying in the church, aware of the irony of how I used to cry in Synagogue in Cleveland as a kid- but because I wanted to get the heck out of there! Al Green’s service was one of the great experiences of my life”.

Cohn wrote about that service in the song:

“They’ve got catfish on the table

They’ve got Gospel in the air

And Reverend Green be glad to see you

When you haven’t got a prayer

But, boy, you’ve got a prayer in Memphis”

The next miracle happened when he visited the Hollywood Café in Mississippi and saw a retired schoolteacher by the name of Muriel Wilkins playing Gospel and Marc Cohn was again enraptured: “I felt an immediate connection by her voice, her spirit, her face and her smile. I was totally transfixed by her music. During her breaks, the two of us would talk, she asked me why I was there, I told her about my childhood (his mother had died suddenly when he was just two, and he had never quite been able to move on from dealing what loss), and by Midnight she asked me to join her on stage. The very last song we sang together that night was ‘Amazing Grace’, people applauded us, and Muriel leaned over and whispered in my ear “Child, you can let go now”.

Marc Cohn said that incredibly generous, maternal, and Christian act of Muriel’s “was almost as if my mother was whispering in my ear”. He had been transformed twice and he knew he had a great song he had to tell the world about.

“Now Muriel plays piano

Every Friday at the Hollywood

And they brought me down to see her

And they asked me if I would do a little number

And I sang with all my might

She said, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?”

And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”

The song became Marc Cohn’s signature tune (and was later covered by Cher) and was enormously successful, spending 23 weeks in the ‘Billboard’ Top 100, it was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1992 Grammy Awards and he won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

When ever I feel that I need to centre myself or be at peace, I just listen to ‘Walking in Memphis’ and I feel closer to God. You can see why below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgRafRp-P-o