The Spiritual Dark Age – @tokillaking – album review

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It’s years since I posted up a music review on my blog but I’ve felt compelled to write about this new album from underrated band To Kill A King. Full disclosure: the lead singer Ralph is a family friend I’ve known since he was a teenager so I’ve always followed his band’s work with interest. The Spiritual Dark Age is To Kill A King’s third album and was three years in the making. I saw them live on Monday at intimate Newcastle venue The Cluny – they are still on tour as I write – go and see them if you get the chance, a really energetic and entertaining band to see live.

5 Star Review: The Spiritual Dark Age – To Kill A King

I’m not sure how the band would feel about my describing this as a concept album – but I think it is and the clue is in the album name, title track ‘The Spiritual Dark Age’. The theme running through this blistering 40 minutes of anthemic, lyrical folk rock is ‘the crack in everything’. The feel of this album reminds me a little of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (although it doesn’t have as much a sense of dread). Ralph’s lyrics articulate a generation that is set adrift spiritually, perhaps most clearly in the title track:

And so the good man said:
“Turns out God is dead.”
They worshipin’ signs instead
Faith from books they haven’t read
They’re angry all the time
Angry at some hole inside
Welcome to the Spiritual Dark Age

Oh, don’t lose your grip
Don’t get contemplative
About this space we live
Between first breath and then the grave
No need to be saved
Just some rules on how to behave
Welcome to the Spiritual Dark Age

I’m not alone and you’re not alone in this
There’s no map and we’re all just set adrift
Just children making pictures in the sky
Arguing about who’s wrong and who’s right

Aye, there’s the rub. Other tracks include the Unspeakable Crimes of Peter Popoff – about a televangelist, and Compassion is a German Word, which contains my favourite lyric: ‘compassion is my weapon of choice’. I made this little poster (my first piece of fan art!) to illustrate it (shamelessly nicking Banksy’s image from Palestine):

Compassion is my weapon of choice.jpg

There is hope to be found too, a sense of solidarity, a sense of finding out what really makes life worth living such as the insight of Good Old Days:

There’s time to waste
There’s a golden beam lights up their face
But you never stopped to appreciate it

So tell me now how it’s possible that a single day seems so
Beautiful and you never know them till they’re gone

This is a great album. Having received it on (cool purple) vinyl has made me listen to it ‘properly’ – as in all the way through without skipping. It’s a cliche but it really is all killer, no filler.

I can’t remember the last time I heard an album that so accurately pinpointed the current spiritual zeitgeist. Have a listen!

The album’s available on Spotify or direct from the band’s website here: http://www.tokillaking.co.uk/

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My vinyl copy of the album on my record player

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What I learnt watching telly for @sandfordawards

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This year I was invited to help shortlist for the Sandford St Martin Trust Awards – an awards scheme for excellence in broadcasting that engages with religion, ethics or spirituality. The shortlisting process involved watching a lot of television (obviously) that covered themes as wide ranging as Joan of Arc, Muslim Drag Queens and Srebrenica.

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Me at the Church and Media Conference in 2015 with some of the Sandford St Martin staff

I think broadcasting that covers themes of religion, ethics and spirituality is only going to become more important in our current times. You have only to see some views espoused on social media or down the pub about religion and belief to realise how ill-informed most people are (and I include myself in that). Despite the decline of print media and even the decline in live television viewing – most of us still consume a lot of television – we simply do this via catch-up now or streaming services or saving up for a box set. Levels of religious literacy in particular are at an all time low, we don’t even understand our own religious background (which floats around like a ghost in the back of our mind with a refrain of ‘he who would valiant be’ from Primary School) – let alone understand what makes a Muslim tick. Most people wouldn’t get the ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ joke from the Life of Brian any more – or at least wouldn’t be able to say where the joke comes from in the Bible. So we need good religious broadcasting. We need to understand the ‘other’ better in our world of angry tweets and incendiary Facebook posts.

Fascinatingly, a lot of the programmes I watched for the shortlisting were about extremism – either Islamic extremism or forms of fascism and white supremacy. Whilst I found these quite interesting, they didn’t teach me anything new, but perhaps even hardened my view on extremism.

The programmes I found most affecting were those in which we saw ordinary people trying to live out their faith. I particularly enjoyed the Irish documentary series ‘Baz the Lost Muslim‘ about a man who had grown up in Catholic Ireland with a Catholic mother but Egyptian Muslim father who decided to explore the faith of his father for the first time at the age of 40 – he had some profound moments along the way – particularly the first time he prayed.

Another wonderful programme was a short film about Muslim style vlogger Nabiilabee meeting with ex-Girls Aloud singer Nicola Roberts – they were sent on a mission to buy each other an outfit that worked with their own preferences – of course with modesty for the Muslim woman. This is a lovely programme which you can watch here – I particularly loved hearing Nabiilabee talking about ‘bad hijab days’! This was a really honest conversation about clothes and religious beliefs.

Another programme which showed the levels of diversity within a big religion like Islam was Muslim Drag Queens. Initially the provocative name put me off but this was a very moving documentary. The most striking part for me was when one more seasoned drag queen was teaching a new lad some moves in a night club (during the day). It came to prayer time and the younger lad was going to take his prayer mat into the corner to say his prayers. The older drag queen was horrified that his friend was happy to pray in such a place. It was fascinating – the discussion was not about their sexuality or the fact that they were drag queens but about their faith and how they live it out in Western Society. This was such a refreshing surprise – I’d love to see more programming like this. You can watch the programme on All 4 here – don’t let the title put you off!

My favourite programme which sadly wasn’t shortlisted ultimately (but got top marks from me!) was You, Me and the Apocalypse. This was a drama shown earlier in the year on Sky1. It is the most innovative drama I have seen in a long time. It benefits from having very high American drama production values and a very witty British script with a mixture of British and American actors. I think the reason it wasn’t shortlisted was that we shortlisted individual episodes, not whole series, and this is a series that really needs to be seen in its entirety and not one episode in isolation as the plot is complicated. The series is by turns hilarious, profound and moving and generates plenty of questions in the viewer. In my view it would be a great programme to watch over a few weeks as a small group from church or even as an adult confirmation course! The premise of the programme is that there is a meteor coming that will destroy the planet in 30 days and it tracks the response of a variety of characters in the UK and USA and other places whose stories begin to connect as the series progresses. I really recommend it and I was disappointed it didn’t ‘make the cut’ so to speak so I will sing its praises here!

I have only written here about a few of the programmes I watched. I thought it was a sad indictment of our times that so many were focused on the negative things to come out of religion or extremist beliefs. I hope that programme makers might look a bit more in the future at the more human stories of people working out what it means to live out their faith in the modern world as it is these stories we need to hear more. We all know what happens when religion goes wrong – we have the news for that – but drama and documentary makers have the opportunity to report on the real lives of believers and the complexities of being a person of faith – that is far more engaging and interesting!

If you’re interested, these are the final programmes I helped to shortlist. The awards will be presented on 8th June 2016.

Television Shortlist

A DEADLY WARNING: SREBRENICA REVISITED

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC One

Read more:

BAZ: THE LOST MUSLIM (PART 2)

Brown Bread Films Ltd for RTÉ2

Read more: 

GENIUS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD: BUDDHA

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC Four

Read more:

JOAN OF ARC: GOD’S WARRIOR

Matchlight Limited for BBC Two

Read more:

MUSLIM DRAG QUEENS

Swan Films for Channel 4

Read more:

MY SON THE JIHADI

True Vision Productions for Channel 4

Read more:

SONGS OF PRAISE (16/08/2015 FROM THE JUNGLE, CALAIS)

BBC Religion and Ethics for BBC One

Read more:

THE ARK

Red Planet Pictures for BBC One

Read more: 

Reflections on my Rural Mission Study Block in Ripon Deanery

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As part of my theological training at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham I took a Mission Study Block (MSB) looking at rural ministry in the Ripon Deanery. I chose this study block because I came with virtually no knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of rural ministry. I’ve always been a towny – I’ve visited the countryside on holiday but that was the extent of my knowledge. I don’t feel especially called to rural ministry but neither did I want to rule it out purely because I have no experience of it.

12 of us from Cranmer Hall spent 2 weeks together in and around the Ripon Deanery undertaking a combination of teaching, trips out and time on placement with local clergy and churches. It was a very formative experience in all senses of the word and I am sure everything I learned will be applicable to wherever I end up in ministry in the future.

I will share here some of the status updates I made on Facebook throughout the MSB  and try to summarise some of the key things I learnt about rural ministry. At the bottom is a collection of photos I took some of which probably speak more loudly than these words! This is all part of my theological reflection – if you have anything to add or challenge, please do, as it will help me to learn more.

17 June

Today we prayed in a T shaped chapel (St Lawrence Aldfield with Studley), held some tiny piglets, had an ice cream in the sun and said evening prayer in Ripon Cathedral. Joy!

19 June

Today I was inspired to hear Sally Gaze talk about being Mission-shaped and Rural; overwhelmed at the wonderful place that is Jennyruth Workshops by the fab staff (who have learning disabilities) and the quality of woodwork they produce, finishing the day at a priest’s induction in the beautiful Pateley Bridge. A good day.

20 June

Today I helped with a graveyard survey, discovered that the one thing they don’t teach you at theological college is that being a deacon is great fun, spent the afternoon learning about tourism and the rural economy at the beautiful Newby Hall & Gardens (over afternoon tea) finishing off with a meal at a parishioner’s house playing Monopoly and then reading the chapter about the Quidditch World Cup in HP book 4 to her two children. What a great day! I could get used to this!

24 June

Today I learnt about the challenges of rural ministry from the wonderful Bishop James, visited the Yorkshire Showground, said evening prayer in a lovely Methodist chapel and watched the Ripon wakeman sound the watch at 9pm – something done in the square every night since 886AD!

25 June

I spent today in beautiful Swaledale and learnt about rural spirituality from two inspirational priests. Then had a fab lunch in Reeth and then went to Marrick Priory – the coolest outdoor activity centre that’s actually a converted medieval priory. We went climbing in a quarry – proud of myself for doing it. Finished the day having dinner with a lovely retired URC minister & his wife. I am tired but happy!

What I learnt about rural ministry from the experience (in no particular order):

Please note that all of the below are gleaned from just 2 weeks in one particular (but quite diverse) deanery – so please don’t take these as generalisations or as applicable only to rural contexts.

  • Visibility: being visible in rural ministry is really important, even if it is not possible to personally visit everyone in your benefice. You are often known by your car – Caroline, priest in Swaledale has a Land Rover with a badge on the wheel on the back saying ‘Parish of Swaledale’. One of the Methodist ministers we met talked of the importance of shopping locally – even if it is inconvenient – in your dog collar you are seen – and of course you can catch up on local news. Hanging around at bus stops is also an opportunity to engage with people. Finding out where people are and then going there works. Bishop James Bell called it ‘strategic visibility’.
  • Rootedness: People in rural communities are very much rooted to the land, its heritage and their ancestors. Often, everyone is related to everyone else. One farmer showed us Roman finds from his farm. There is a sense of continuity and rootedness that you simply don’t get in cities. There is a real sense that the land is just ‘on loan’ and that many people have preceded you and many will come after you.
  • Hospitality: this can also be evident in towns and cities of course but rural ministry does seem to run on tea and cake! Food and making people feel welcome is an integral part of what happens in rural communities.
  • Ecumenism: tied to ecumenism is the lack of any extreme churchmanship. When an anglican church is the only church in a community (which is often the case) the congregation will comprise of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. This means that you will not get ‘niche’ churches that serve a particular flavour of Christianity – such as you get in towns and cities. As a minister it’s important to take into account the different backgrounds of the congregation. A simple suggestion made was to say such things as, “let’s sing that great Wesley hymn…” in introducing hymns – nodding to the Methodist heritage of some people. Working across denominational boundaries is essential in rural areas and some of the best examples of ecumenical work can be found in rural areas.
  • Seasons: This is an obvious one but the seasons have a more powerful impact on rural communities – especially farming communities. A way the church can be more involved is in using the old rural church calendar traditions such as Plough Sunday, Clypping and Rogation Sunday. One priest said she spent a lot of time blessing farming equipment and her church has been praying for the yield of local farmers – one farmer saying they’d noticed a lack of disease in the flock this year!
  • Relationships: this is true for all ministry – it is about relationships. However, because so many in rural areas are connected to each other by family links this does change things somewhat. For example, attending an Alpha course with family members is awkward and not necessarily appropriate. Spirituality is more expressed corporately than individually. This shows how urban-centric many evangelism programmes are – so many are focused on coming to a personal faith on one’s own – rather than as part of a community over a period of time. My reflection on this is that more ‘organic’ forms of discipleship growth need to be used in a rural area (and perhaps in cities actually).
  • Cross cultural: rural ministry is cross cultural mission – working with incomers and landowners, farmers and artists…
  • Creative: far from being ‘behind’ what is happening in the church in urban areas there is a huge amount of creativity in rural churches – perhaps because of the restrictions and lack of resources that are common in rural churches. I was really inspired by how Caroline, vicar of Swaledale, turned a ‘bat problem’ into an opportunity.

There was much more that I learnt but this is a simple summary of some of the things I noted. At the end of the placement we were encouraged to spend some time writing a Collect (prayer) for the Rural Church. Here is mine, a little rough around the edges:

Creator Lord,

in the deep memory that the land holds,

may we remember your faithfulness through the generations.

In our deep knowledge of the people in our community,

may we deepen in our relationship with you.

For in you is perfect relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen

Here is a collection of images I took whilst on the placement, click on the images to see a full slideshow (24 photos). I think the piglet probably wins it!

Tired out after a beautiful day in Swaledale.Ripon hornblower. This has been going on at 9pm every night in Ripon market place since 886AD!South side of Ripon Cathedral at dusk on the longest day of the yearIn the memorial garden at Newby HallOne of the gardens at Newby HallStatue of Christ the Consoler at the church of the same name (a William Burges gothic revival church)
Lovely morning in RiponMorning Prayer in the tiny St Lawrence church Oldfield with StudleyMorning Prayer at T shaped chapel of St Lawrence - Oldfield with StudleyPiglet!

Two simple questions that could change my life

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Learning about the examen

I took this photo of Shaeron Caton-Rose's installation 'Mirror' at the Greenbelt Festival this weekend. I was struck by how the piece showed beauty in the brokenness.

I’ve mentioned before here how much I enjoy the Pray as you go podcasts from the Irish Jesuits. They’re based on Ignatian spirituality which is something I’ve been getting interested in this year. Serendipitously, I was at Cragg Hill Church the other week and the pastor, Gaynor, mentioned a book called ‘Sleeping with Bread‘ all about the Ignatian practice of the ‘examen’.

The ‘examen’ is a very simple spiritual discipline which you can carry out on a daily basis or use it to reflect on an event or even the past year.

It consists of two simple questions:

What has given me life today?

What has taken life away from me today?

Ignatius called these two aspects ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’.

You simply look back over the day and consider and acknowledge all the life-giving, joy-giving things that happened. These are all, of course, a gift of God. Then you acknowledge any pain or sadness, lifting these things to God.

What I think is particularly helpful about this discipline is the acknowledgement of the good and the bad. I’m an eternal optimist. I’m not very good, therefore, at acknowledging sadness and pain. I tend to try and ‘find the good’ – even when it’s not there. Equally, I have friends who are the opposite to me. They only focus on the negatives and will always look to the downsides of things. The discipline of the examen helps both types of person to see the light and the shade of life and to see where God is at work in that.

Undertaking this kind of discipline can really help you to discern God’s guidance – especially with regard to your job or your role at Church. Is what you are doing giving you life? Which parts of your job give you joy?

I’m just starting out my journey with this discipline of the examen but I have an inkling that it really could change my life for the better.

Try it yourself

If you want to try it for yourself, there is a ‘review of the day’ mp3 here on the Pray-as-you-go website which uses the examen. This is a great introduction. The book I referred to above is brilliant, very short but a really helpful introduction to the discipline of the examen. It especially has some interesting things to say about using it as a family and with children.

Try it with others

We also tried the examen together at small group recently. I played a song and then we spent some time in silence reflecting on the last few months of our lives: what had given us life, what had drained us. We then shared this with each other and found some interesting themes coming out. It was so good to share the joys and pains of the last few months with each other and even easier to then pray into those situations: giving thanks to God for the life-giving moments and praying about the sadnesses.

Next time you’re wanting to do something a bit different at your church or in your small group, perhaps doing a form of the ‘examen’ might help? Let me know how it goes if you do try it!

Holy week reflections – Monday

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I was listening to the Pray as you go podcast today and the reading was this from the Gospel of John:

John 12

Jesus Anointed at Bethany

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

I was moved to reflect once again on the actions of Mary of Bethany (is she a saint I wonder?).

I was struck by the following things:

Acceptance

She is the only one of the disciples to fully accept that Jesus has to die. The perfume is for anointing the dead, in anointing Jesus she is accepting what has to happen to him. Perhaps she was the only one that truly heard Jesus’ constant reminder to his disciples that he would have to suffer, die and be raised again on the third day?

Sacrifice

The perfume would have cost all the money she had. It is like giving away your car or computer. In carrying out this act, Mary makes a huge sacrifice, not only emotionally, in accepting what had to happen to Jesus, but financially/physically as she gives away all she has.

Vulnerability

What Mary does is a huge act of faith. She is ready to sacrifice her material possessions and also her hope in Jesus and what he will do. What she also does is wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. This would have been outrageous – a woman’s hair should have been covered in that society. She makes herself fully vulnerable before Jesus, almost naked, just giving herself fully to Him. This she does in front of the other believers at the meal, unashamed of her devotion to her saviour.

Once again, Mary has set an example that I would like to follow.

Why am I giving up alcohol for lent?

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It’s not what you think!

I really like the church calendar; it’s like the ecclesiastical equivalent of the seasons. And since we don’t feel the seasons so much in our Western culture (apart from getting SADS) in terms of their immediate impact on our lives, our food etc., the church calendar is one of the few frameworks available to us to map out our passing years. It still defines our holidays in the UK.

Lent is a special time of the year. Unfortunately for us Christians, it has morphed into a ‘try a new year’s resolution again’ thing from what used to be a real spiritual discipline. It’s easy to talk about ‘what you’re going to give up for lent’ but people view it as something you do for health reasons or for self-discipline. This couldn’t be further from the original point!

Apparently the season of lent developed from the fact that in the early church, new converts were usually baptised on Easter Sunday – the day of resurrection. Each new convert would have had a sponsor who would teach them about the faith (like a mini Alpha course) and pray and fast with the candidate in the run up to the big day. Before long, nearly everyone was finding themselves praying and fasting in preparation for the bonanza of baptisms on Easter Sunday! This then developed into a whole church discipline and there were plenty of ideas for the length of time to set from the scriptures: the number of days Noah’s ark floated on the water; the years the Israelites spent wandering before entering the promised land and the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness before commencing his ministry.

Choosing my Lenten observances for this year was quite a funny affair. I decided, as I have done for the last couple of years, to give up alcohol for lent. Then I had a chat with some friends and colleagues about it and lots of people said ‘how are you going to get through the next 6 weeks?’ (it’s financial year end so we’ve got loads to do and the company is downsizing in the middle of all this) and I started to think – ‘perhaps it’s not such a good idea’.

I then started to think, ‘why do we give things up for lent?’ Well it’s the act of fasting: a spiritual discipline which exists in most major world religions. The point of fasting is to draw you closer to God, to relying on Him and making space to hear His voice. So I then thought, ‘maybe it would be more productive to spend an hour every day in prayer?’ I think this might be true, in terms of what would bring me closer to God, the prayer surely wins, right? Those of you who are friends with me on Twitter and Facebook will have seen that I posed the question on Tuesday of which I should do (the prayer or the giving up alcohol). Most people replied ‘both’ and my heart sank! My husband pointed out to me that if the thought of going without alcohol for 6 weeks filled me with dread – then I really did need to give it up for lent!

So in the end, I realised that to have the true sense of ‘fasting’ (and sacrifice) that I needed to give up alcohol, and I knew deep down that that was what God wanted me to do too. But at the same time:

I want to make clear to people that I am not doing it primarily for health reasons, or the challenge, or to test my will power but to draw myself more deliberately towards God.

To help me a bit I’ve got a book which splits the famous spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ into 30 daily readings. Each day also has a ‘mantra’ to bear in mind through the day and the one I read for Ash Wednesday couldn’t be more illustrative of why I’ve given up alcohol for lent:

‘Bind me to You with a loving leash of longing’

This is my prayer. I hope your Lenten observances have a similar aim!

The imperceptible work of God

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Photograph I took in Pudsey in Spring last year

I was listening this week to the brilliant Pray as you go podcast. It’s been going through Mark’s gospel and yesterday’s reading (read on the podcast by a man with a wonderful Irish brogue!) was:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4: 26-29

It made me think again about how God operates in our lives. There are a lot of parables and metaphors of growth and nature in the Bible. In our modern western culture, we are so far from these kinds of images that it takes us an extra step to understand or process what Jesus is saying.

When you think about it, it really is a mystery how things grow in the ground and are then turned into food. We know scientifically what is going on, but there is still something mysterious about the way things grow all on their own.

I was reflecting on this short reading and thinking, a lot of the process of growth is completely imperceptible to us. We can’t see what’s going on under the surface of the ground and we don’t really get how it works. Is this how God is at work in us? I think it is.

The last few weeks I’ve been really stressed about my work situation. After praying with some friends I have recently had a strange serenity about things which can only have come from God. Just as the sower in this parable, ‘I don’t know how’.

How is God working imperceptibly in you? Where does most of the growth take place? Can you see it?

Here is a short video from Youtube showing some corn growing. You might find it helpful to mute your speakers as the music doesn’t quite fit for reflection and meditation. Watch where the growth is, look at the detail: