Gospel Music: The Happy Song That Grew From Suffering

We’ve all heard of the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From the 1500-1800’s, more than 12 million souls were captured, torn from their families and homes, and sold across the sea – with almost 2 million dying before they even landed. Those that made it were treated as sub-human property by their new masters, to be used and tossed aside at will.

Of all the people in the world, these are the last you’d expect to hear singing. Yet sing they did, with such passion and rhythm and hope that they eventually created a whole new kind of music: Gospel, a genre still popular enough today that I recently attended a concert at the Cork City Hall along with hundreds of other people who all paid €40 for the privilege of hearing the Blind Boys Of Alabama sing about Jesus in their toe tapping style. I looked on in amazement, because it doesn’t add up: Take a group of men who have personally known the depths of the hate and oppression this world has to offer (they lived through segregation in Jim Crow-era Alabama, as well as a world war), men whose ancestors were stolen and enslaved, men who began life with every disadvantage society could give them already built in – then add on top of that the further disadvantage of physical blindness. Now tell me what you think these men will sing. Why didn’t we hear the angry tirades of many modern rappers and rock stars? Wouldn’t that anger be justified? Why not at least the sorrow of a country tune lamenting all that has gone wrong? Surely they have more right to anger than Tupac or Eminem. Surely they have more to lament than the cowboys of Nashville.

How can they be so happy? How can music born in such suffering and pain have the power to lift anyone who hears it and make them want to dance for joy? And how is it that we who enjoy all the advantages they were denied choose instead to sing so tirelessly of our misery, heartbreak, and loss?

The Blind Boys know, and they were quite clear when they visited Cork: “Jesus is the answer” they said, and sang, and demonstrated with their obvious joy in the face of all they have known and experienced. Jesus is the Gospel behind the music, the reason toes can tap in joyful rhythm even in the midst of earthly oppression and disability and war. Jesus, the most innocent man who ever lived, who let himself be oppressed and unjustly killed, who did it “for the joy set before him” – knowing that his victory over the death our sin deserved would open the door to the most glorious and enduring celebration ever known, a celebration that the Blind Boys tapping toes are inviting us to glimpse and taste as we wait for their voices to join with all God’s rescued children in the Gospel Music Session of the ages!

Banksy Grabs Headlines, Even As Millions Of Masterpieces Shredded Daily

Last Wednesday the anonymous British graffiti artist known as ‘Banksy’ sold a few prints at an auction in Paris. This is notable mainly because of what didn’t happen: the last time Banksy art was sold (earlier this month) it self-destructed only moments after the gavel went down on a  bid of over a million British pounds. Banksy had installed a shredder inside the frame, which was remotely activated as soon as the sale was complete. It sounds a bit like the stuff of spy movies, and certainly was a first for the art world. Or was it?

It’s true that it had never happened at an auction before. But outside the auction halls, it’s actually quite common. Take a walk down the street from the now-embarrassed Sotheby’s in London, and before long you’ll find yourself in Hyde Park. One of the city’s large Royal Parks, Hyde Park boasts a beautiful variety of autumn colour this time of year. In other words, a profusion of striking colours fill the air with beauty as an entire natural gallery begins to transform, without any need for remote activation, in a synchronised rhythm of mass self-destruction.

Autumn in Hyde Park, London

Take a walk through the park, and you’ll hear the satisfying crunch of Autumn under your feet. Bring a magnifying glass with you and marvel at the intricate design of millions of tiny cells, each containing libraries of design plans stored in organic memory more sophisticated than any device Silicon Valley has produced, boasting internal machines with the power to convert raw sunlight into energy more efficiently than any solar panel. All of these engineering marvels are spread on eye-catching canvasses with a wide variety of symmetrical shapes and blazing colours, and some of them have found their way into your shoe. You crush them under your feet as the trees release more into the breeze with a similarly careless disregard. All over this half of the world, billions more trees are releasing billions more leaves in a wanton self-destructive shower of ticker tape, not even caring if anyone is there to appreciate their dying display or jump in the gathered piles of art that used to hang in their lofty galleries.

When God creates art, he is anything but sparing. He spreads it far and wide, covering the earth not merely in repeated prints but in billions of fantastically unique originals, and then destroys them in seemingly heedless abandon, gathering their decaying canvasses into the soil to give nutrients to a new generation of art ready to burst out in Spring. You don’t have to go to exclusive auction houses or pay a million pounds to enjoy it – the art is growing in profusion all around you, all free, all given for your daily enjoyment by the greatest Master the art world will ever know.

Banksy was original, but not as original as the leaf in your shoe.

A Christian Perspective On The Blasphemy Referendum

This is a guest post written by Jonny Grant, pastor of Carrigaline Baptist Church

This coming Friday, the 26th October, we will have the opportunity to re-elect or vote for a new President. On the same day we, the citizens of Ireland, are being asked to vote on a proposal to change the Constitution of Ireland in relation to the issue of blasphemy.
At present, the Constitution says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law. Article 40.6.1 in full says:

The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:
i) The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

The proposal is to remove the word blasphemous from the constitution.

So what is blasphemy, and should the word stay or be removed?

While the constitution itself does not define blasphemy, the legal definition of blasphemy is contained in the Defamation Act of 2009: That Act says that a person publishes or utters something blasphemous if they;

‘Publish or say something that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and intend to cause that outrage.’

In May 2017, following a complaint, the Gardaí investigated the comedian and TV personality Stephen Fry for blasphemy. In an interview with Gay Byrne, Fry described God as: ‘capricious’, ‘mean-minded’ and ‘stupid’ for allowing so much suffering in the world. The investigation was dropped and no charges were brought after Gardaí failed to find a substantial number of adherents outraged by Fry’s comments. To date, under the current legislation, no one in Ireland has been charged with blasphemy.

Personally, as a Christian, I don’t have a problem with Stephen Fry saying what he said. He put into words what many feel about God, whether believers or atheists. I may come to a different conclusion to Fry, but I respect his views and believe he, along with anyone else, have the right to express freely their convictions and opinions. In fact, according the the Defamation Act of 2009, if someone is accused of blasphemy;

“…it is a defence if they can prove that a reasonable person would find literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in what they published or said.”  

It appears then, that the law cancels itself out. As a result, we now have on our statute books a blasphemy offence for which no one will be convicted. It’s a sham. 

So should we keep or remove the word ‘blasphemy’ in the constitution?
It appears that if we keep it, it will make no difference whatsoever. If anyone argues that they are offended, the other can simply argue back that they expressing an opinion. So why remove it? Apart of making things clearer, it is another step in the liberalisation of our state. Removing the word ‘blasphemy’ is an attempt to remove anything religious from the public space. As a country we have grown up, we no longer need religious opinion. We don’t want people with a religiously informed mind making any contribution and causing a stir by being offended. We have simply moved on!

So do I vote ‘Yes’ to remove the word blasphemy or do I vote ‘No’ to keep the word blasphemy? Three things for consideration:

First, I think we should have the freedom to express our opinions and beliefs without fear of arrest or charge, religious or non-religious. As a Christian that does not mean I set out to offend or cause offence, instead: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4v6).

Second, we should not depend upon the state to protect our religious freedom. The laws of the land may protect our right to talk about Jesus Christ, but a day may also come when the laws of the land forbid talking about Jesus, as is the case in many countries today. In such circumstances while we submit to our government (Rom 13v1), and pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2v1-2), where laws of the land contradict the law of Christ we always follow Christ, like Peter and John in the book of Acts:

“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4v18-20).

Third, we should expect to be slandered and insulted, but we do not take offence. Peter reminds us: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you….if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4v14, 16). I do not take offence, rather I rejoice that I am a Christian and belong to him. I do not need the law to protect my sensitivities. I bear the name of Christ!

I am not going to say which way you should vote. I do not think this is a right or wrong issue. Voting yes or no does not contradict scripture. So you must vote according to your Scripture-informed conscience.

A Blasphemy Law Enforced

While no one in Ireland has been charged with blasphemy, we do have the true account of one person who was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death – His name was Jesus. All through his ministry on earth Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, making himself to be God in the flesh. The religious authorities were incensed:

“The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”  “He is worthy of death,” they answered.’  (Matthew 26v63-66)

Jesus was put to death, crucified on a cross. His crime? Claiming to be God. The ironic truth is that Jesus is God. He proved it not just in his miracles but through his resurrection from the grave three days after he died. You see, there is only one we can truly blaspheme against and that is the Lord Jesus Christ – the God/Man. The problem is that we have all cursed God and turned our backs on him. We are all blasphemers, and that is an offence to God, punishable by eternal separation from God – Hell itself. Now that is an offence to us!

But as Jesus was charged and sentenced; he did not become aggressive. Instead, he prayed that his accusers would be forgiven. Jesus did not call on the powers of heaven to destroy, he committed himself to his Father and died for you and for me, so that we could be forgiven of our blasphemy – so that we might live for him. How can we take offence of that!

By Jonny Grant

Happy Chores

It’s no secret that two of the most dreaded words in the usually carefree world of childhood are Homework and Chores. In the long run, we know that homework actually helps our children become successful adults. We also know that we’ll get in trouble with the school if we don’t enforce it. So homework is a given.

But chores are different: As parents, chores are our decision. On the surface, the choice seems obvious: if we want a conflict free home full of happy people, we’ll forget about the idea as quickly as possible. The children don’t like it, and it’s not always helpful for parents who have to remind, supervise, and sometimes redo the whole job anyway. For example, my daughter sometimes lays the table for meals. I could do the job better and more efficiently myself. So why ask her to do it? You might say it’s because she owes me some return for everything I’ve put in to parenting her. But could she ever work enough to pay off the snacks she loves (much less the dinners), the electricity she uses, the petrol for chauffeuring her around, the clothes she wears, and her share of the rent? It’s absurd. Even the money she earns comes from my bank account. I don’t give her the job because I want her to pay me back or because I need her help. I give it because in the long run, I believe she will be a happier person if she learns that the true joy of love is in giving, not taking. The point of her chore is not the job she does, or how well she does it. The point is how well the job teaches her the joy of loving and serving others.

The idea of giving children chores for the sake of their happiness might seem strange, but I didn’t make it up. I learned it from my own relationship with my Heavenly Father. God says his children are “created for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). When you think about it, this is amazing: do we really think that the God who spoke the universe into existence needs our help with his work? He could do it more efficiently without us. He gave breath to every living thing without our help. He gave us a world full of beautiful sunrises and chocolate without asking us for a hand. He didn’t need people for any of this, yet when God made Adam and Eve, he shared with them the joyful job of caring for his creation. Our problems began when they (like us) decided that disobeying God and living selfishly was better for them than loving and obeying the God who made them, loved them, and wanted what was best for them. This is what the Bible calls sin, and because it is against the Author of Life, the consequence is death.

But God didn’t stop giving. Jesus gave his life and rose again to pay for our sin and bring whoever trusts in him back into the family of God. There was no work we could do to help him save us. All we contributed to salvation was the sin that made his death necessary!

But maybe after all these gifts, he’s asking us to work for him so we can pay him back?That certainly sounds fair. The problem is, it’s impossible. The good deeds of a thousand lifetimes couldn’t begin to pay off what God has already given us, much less earn the new gifts he gives every day. So why would God ask little, sinful humans to do his jobs? Romans 8:28-29 tells us that God’s goal in everything is that we will become like Jesus, who found joy even in giving his life for the sake of others (Hebrews 12:2). God loves to give. He delights in giving. And he shares his work with his children because he wants them to experience the same joy he has. If my Heavenly Father wants this joy for me, then I want it, too. And I want it for my children as well.

The Noisiest Headlines Are Not The Most Important


What’s the most important news in that headline? Certainly, a spot on the US Supreme Court is influential in the extreme – far beyond what it was intended to be by America’s founders. Kavanaugh will have out-sized influence over American life for decades to come. And yet, I submit to you that Kavanaugh himself is not the most important part of the news cycle these last few weeks.

We are.

The only thing everyone on both sides seems to agree on is this: the entire process was broken. From that common acknowledgment, we go on to explain whose fault it is, and how corrupt the other side is. Which is fair enough. A free country ought to encourage free exchange and debate. The problem is that we don’t actually debate anymore.

In order to have a fruitful debate, two things are necessary:

1) A shared goal

2) A shared respect

Can’t we debate about our goals? Yes, but until we come to some sort of consensus on our purpose, we will never be able to debate productively about anything else. As long as we disagree on where we are going, we’ll never be able to agree on how to get there. The only way we’ll move at all is by leveraging raw power. This is the state of current “debate” in America: it is primarily rhetoric for the purpose of solidifying bases from which power plays can be made at opportune moments. The Kavanaugh “debate” stank of this. We have come to the point when even accusations of sexual abuse are political weapons to be timed and deployed and shot down with cynical regularity, each side taking turns at each role as the specific situations change. The exact same phrases, moral condemnations and righteous defences are taken up in turn by opposite sides, only to be conveniently forgotten as soon as the tables turn. The game is dirty. Everyone knows it. We justify anything from our side and believe anything against the other with one ultimate purpose: victory at all costs. But what if the cost turns out to be the very foundation of our society? What if, in fighting the monsters against us, we find that we have become monsters ourselves?

The second requirement for productive debate is a recognition that other people are actually people. Even if their perspective is different, their value remains. This is less common than it sounds. In fact, very few societies in history have intentionally valued dissent or dissenters. America has been an exception to this rule, but the revolutionary idea of honouring those we strongly disagree with seems to be falling on hard times. In our zeal to see our vision for the future established, we have begun to allow ourselves the comfortable view that our cultural and political enemies are sub-human animals worthy only of insult and abuse. We call this new reality “Twitter”.

Is there a solution? I believe there is. I believe it is possible to disagree productively. But it won’t happen as long as we define our ultimate problem as the people against us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced the horrors of the Gulag, saw with clarity that the problem is bigger than the other side:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed. While the headlines re-direct us to the corrupt political manoeuvring and power plays in the halls of government, they allow us to conveniently ignore the ways our own hearts are manoeuvring and playing for self-justification and control over others and even over God himself, if that were possible. This is why, no matter how good the headlines are, our favourite politicians can’t save us from the problems around us. Those problems have put their roots into our own chests. The corruption is in our own hearts. This is why righteous causes throughout history have all eventually fallen apart under their own weight, why the saviours of one generation have always somehow become the oppressors of the next, why every revolution leads only to the need for another. No, a better headline won’t save us. We need a better saviour. We need Jesus.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

The (Lost) Art Of Contentment

We’re not supposed to be content. We’re told that what we really should be is busy, productive, and eager to buy the next life-changing device offered half price on Black Friday. The busier the better as we keep pushing forward, improving our station in life, and not letting anybody stand in the way of our dreams. No room in all that for talk of contentment. We’re well entrenched in the habit of waiting for something else to happen before we can settle in and enjoy life – before we can let ourselves be content. Even after we cross the finish line for a big goal, it doesn’t take long to realise that we’re still not content. So we try again, looking for another finish line to aim for, pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve it, and then finding out that it doesn’t satisfy us, either. The cycle continues, and we’re not the only ones caught in it: even the massively successful rich and famous seem to live in the same spiral of goals, achievements, and discontent. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if we are successful or not, the underlying discontent with the reality of our lives is there either way. Failure is devastating. Success is empty. Is contentment even possible?

It is. But we won’t find it by looking over and over again in the same tired places. That’s okay, though, because it’s already been found. In a letter written roughly 2,000 years ago, a man named Paul gives us his treasure map with an “X” on contentment:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:12-13

Needs or not, poverty or plenty, Paul has learned a secret that lets him live in any situation with calm contentment. Doesn’t that sound amazing? To be able to look poverty in the eye – real, cold, hungry poverty (which Paul lived through multiple times) – and say: I know how to accept you and still be happy and secure. And then to be able to look at the jewels dripping off glittering prosperity and say confidently: your gold can’t change who I am. I can take it or leave it. I’m content. Paul said all of this in the face of prison, beatings, death threats – and also prosperity.

So what is this secret that can give us the ability to live so far above our circumstances that we can be content no matter what? Paul says: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

How does Paul face the ups and downs of life so calmly? He’s not living for this life. His main purpose in life is not to get the most he can out of life. If it was, than any downs he faced would be devastating because they would be defeating his main goal, and any ups he gained would never be enough because there would always be something greater he could get for himself. The evidence is all around us: there’s no level of human achievement that can actually satisfy us as humans. In the face of this, Paul’s secret is that he is not looking to get something in his life that will satisfy him. The ups and downs have lost their power to throw him, because no matter what, he’s already satisfied. He is content because he has a foundation to live from that is solid and steady in poverty, prosperity, good, bad, and even death itself.

Paul’s secret is that he is secure. He is confident that God has accepted him because Jesus paid for his sin and gave him the right to be brought into God’s family as his child. No amount of money or goodness could buy that confidence, and no loss of anything in this world can take it away. It’s there, firm enough for any hurricane of circumstance or windfall of fortune.

Contentment is not weakness or laziness, it is a solid security strong enough to look life in the eye without flinching. It’s a treasure, and we are poor in our lack of it.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

The Song Of Streams

Now everybody’s looking up, the sky is in their dreams,

All climbing ladders, stairs and walls – a little more, it seems,

And we will satisfy our thirst among the mountain streams

But mountain streams flow opposite to all we think we know

Their joy is not to climb the heights – they hurry to be low

Through rocks and mud and tangled roots, and laughing as they go

Their Maker, pleased to do the same, came down from dizzy height

To deepest valley far below to save us in our plight

To lift us up, the King went down, and it was His delight!

Oh, let me learn the song of streams, that joyful, laughing sound,

The pathway of my Maker on a ladder upside-down,

And so to lift up others – wherever they are found