Friday, February 21, 2014

Happiness is the truth?

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth Because I'm happy...

So run the lyrics to a song by Pharrell Williams my kids are singing at the mo. It's a catchy, fun song, and features in Despicable Me 2. What could be better?

Last night my wife said she'd had a philosophical chat with our 8-year-old son about the line quoted above.

Because actually happiness is not the truth. Feelings are not always – not often? – the best indicators of truth. Put technically, this lyric seriously confuses the subjective with the objective.

Chuckling about this with a friend later still, it occurred to me that this has a bearing on contemporary charismatic worship. All too often the message contained in its songs amounts to 'Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth – Because we're happy' (and, runs the implication, if we're not happy, we're somehow 'backslidden' or we needs to be 'filled again').

Caveat: I'm not advocating carefully nurtured misery. As a rule, I'm with Teresa of Avila, who is reported to have said, 'From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!'

But there is a problem if we really sing, and really believe that 'happiness is the truth'.

Apart from anything else, we'd have to snip massive portions of our bible out and throw them away. What happens to Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? And what are we going to do with Lamentations: Is it nothing to you,all you who pass by? What happens to groanings too deep for words? What about the prayer of Jesus on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We live in a world of grief, pain, turmoil and anguish - our own and others'. As Tom Wright puts it, our vocation is to be 'in prayer at the place where the world is in pain'. There is a time to cry, to lament, as well as to celebrate.

I don't like to carp. After all, I have blogged about this before. But sometimes, standing in the congregation on a Sunday morning, I don't want to spend the whole time singing about joy joy joy joy down in my heart. I have friends who are suffering. Disappointments that perplex me. Besetting sins that plague me. Images from the news that haunt me. I need to bring these things to God in intercession, lament, confession, and, yes, Paul's odd expression, groanings. And intertwined with all that, yes, there is the joy of God and his salvation.

By all means 'Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do' (another lyric from Pharrell Williams there). But leave room for other emotions in our life and worship, too.

Most of all leave room for truth – which is bigger, broader, deeper, and more mysterious than happiness alone.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two kinds of prayer

Reading Luke's gospel this morning, I was struck by two ways of praying.

It was in a story Jesus told, in Luke 18:9-14.

The first prayer is addressed to God. It is confident and spontaneous. It takes a stand against greed, injustice and immorality. It speaks of a life of spiritual discipline, and financial generosity.

The second prayer is not addressed to God, directly. It is a hesitantly mumbled, set prayer. It is brief and embarrassed.

But the first prayer, Jesus says, is actually prayed not to God, but to the person who prayed it - he says it to himself. But the second prayer goes straight to God's heart.

Which kind of prayer do I pray, I wonder? Which kind are most often heard in our meetings? Which kind have you prayed today?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


Contrary to the sniggering assertions of some of my friends I’m not a Belieber. In truth, I hardly know any of the songs Justin Bieber’s sung. I couldn’t even hum along.

Nevertheless, I did find the story of the ordinary lad who achieved YouTube fame, well – endearing. I was prepared to say ‘Good luck to the lad’ and wish him well. I even played a video of one of his songs during a Sunday sermon once (this one – Pray). It was this that made some label me a belieber – and if that’s all it takes for the cap to fit, I don’t mind wearing it.

But recently the media has turned against young Justin. ‘Justice Bieber’ yelled the headline of the Metro as I passed through the station on my way to work the other morning. The young singer, catapulted too far into realms of fame and fortune he couldn’t handle, has been caught speeding, apparently high and drunk. More scurrilous stories have come out. Strippers. Substance-abuse. You get the picture.

And it made me really sad, not because I’m Justin’s number one fan, but because it seems to me there’s something toxic about a culture that lifts people – in this case a child – to the heights only to smash them down and gloat when they land on the rocks.

We (rightly) excoriate child abuse, but it seems to me that there’s a kind of collective, cultural abuse about this kind of thing. Yes Bieber’s 19 now, but he was only a minor when he started his meteoric rise. I don’t think any young person – indeed any human being, let alone a child – can handle such a flight. (Remember Icarus?)

I think the boy who wrote ‘Pray’ meant well. I think a culture that should know better – that says it knows better – should examine itself before baying for Bieber blood. 

I pray for Justin Bieber. But I also want to take my part in forming an alternative culture; one in which innocence, youth, childhood, idealism, the gifts of a rising generation – such things are nurtured and protected, not squandered and spoiled.