Thursday, August 25, 2011

On the Nature of British Hymns and Worship

Quick aside on British hymns: absolutely exquisite stuff, great theology, written with a higher form of language that creates a stirring style of worship. But there is a second kind of hymn as well: a familiar one with a twist. We've sung five hymns that I've recognized since arriving, and three had completely unrecognizable melodies that threw me for a loop. I'm sure the look on my face was priceless during those 30 seconds as I tried to reconcile what my brain knew and what I was hearing. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing at all, the words are still what matter but it does create a different backdrop for the words. And that, in turn, evokes a different kind of worship, if that makes sense.

For example, "My Jesus I Love Thee" was one of the transformed hymns from this past Sunday. Stateside, this is one of my all-around favorite hymns: pretty solid theology, beautiful and vivid imagery revolving around the brow, and a new angle of looking at all the times we should love Jesus the most (pretty much all the time), all set to a mellow, reflective melody that borders on haunting. Anyways, over here the melody is in a major key and has more tempo, which gives it an almost bouncing quality that detracts from the content, or at the very least does not lend itself to the same introspection and reflection on what the song is saying. The beautiful words are still there, so this is just a minor gripe, but it doesn't rise to the same heights that the original(?) does.

The pianist, Christine, explained that hundreds of selections in the hymnal have two tunes--presumably one British tune and one American--and some even have a third, distinctly Welsh rendition. And, in all fairness, the other differing tunes were great, but none stood out so much as this one to me. The brighter, more upbeat stream of notes doesn't take away from the words, but it is a tune more geared for a song of praise, or something more lighthearted. It just doesn't quite fit.

This dischord between music and lyrics can be found, after a fashion, in a not-so-insignificant number of contemporary worship songs. They are magnificently written and contain some glorious insights about our magnificent God or about the life of a God-follower, but the energy of the song overpowers the truth and might drown out the message altogether. Traditionally, the melody in music has been a frame in which to place the artist's message. When people are focusing on the frame instead of what's inside the frame, something has gone wrong.

It is simply amazing how this shifted from a look at British hymns into an editorial on the state of music in just three paragraphs...that was definitely not my intent. So, back to Wales: hymns are set to different music over here, but they are no less awesome because of it, if not more awesome. Even "My Jesus I Love Thee" is truly fantastic in its own right. I for one can't wait to hear more of them, and I'll try to get them up on here if I can! Hwyl!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Capsules...for the Lazy Writer in All of Us

Okay, so "later tonight" on Friday turned into late Tuesday, and in looking back, I'm still not sure how that came about. I guess if you don't set time aside for things, then they really won't happen! Anyways, I now have a backlog of days, so I'll be dishing out half-sentence thoughts for the highlights of each day, or complete sentences if I feel exceptionally motivated. Here we go!

Wednesday:  Went to lunch over at Cheshire Oaks in England, and got to see most of the town from the inside of a car. This place actually seemed to be one huge shopping center, and Americanized to the point of absurdity. There's nothing wrong with bastions of American stores, believe me, but the aesthetics of the thing made it seem more like an eyesore in the countryside than a reminder of home.

Thursday:  Spent the day going around Chester, again in England. Went looking for car dealerships in the area but both of them had closed down, thanks in no small part to the Arabians. According to our host missionary, almost all the Japanese cars are being bought by merchants in the Middle East, so that there are virtually none coming into Britain. Interesting story that merits investigation, but I digress. With that task out of the way, we spent the morning doing a circuit of the thousand-year-old town walls, and that is truly the way to see the city. An up-close view of the aging buildings combined with sweeping views of the River Dee, Chester Castle, archaic town cathedral, and the "Roodee" (oldest racecourse in England) was a lot to take in, but we still didn't actually go to any landmarks, save for a nifty bookstore and a couple other kiosks. Also, for lunch I had my first taste of fish and chips done right, and I am convinced that it is food of the gods. Filling, savory, crisp, vinegary but not overwhelmingly so, and just done to perfection. Better comfort food than I have had anywhere in the States, and my new favorite affordable meal of choice. Great, great stuff.

Friday:  Pretty uneventful, save for the indescribable joy of settling on a car. The Vauxhall Zafira will be the new Campbell vehicle of choice,;it's a little tight for an MPV (Multi-Person Vehicle) but then I would be hard-pressed to find one that's not tight for my frame. My brother, coming in at 6'5", will probably suffer a little more but we're all just excited at the prospect of having the freedom to go places, and taking the burden off Mr. Quade, our host. The car is set to arrive next Friday.

Saturday:  Played basketball in the Marchwiel park, the one sport that has no influence whatsoever over here. That was the one empty spot in the place; the football field and the skate park were pretty well-populated. Met a couple kids, very amiable but not much for talking--not to the weird American, at least.

Sunday:  Great day in church! Both services featured guest speakers: the one in the morning service was a little hard to follow, but Chris Cole did a tremendous job in the evening. He started in Hebrews 11 but eased into a lecture on exactly why nothing is accomplished apart from faith. God wants us to succeed through Him, but man's self-reliance needs to be set aside in order for this to happen. He did a far more eloquent job than I could ever hope to, so I'll leave the summary at that.

Monday:  Little to report. Went ballin' in Marchwiel again, and cleaned in the Quade's house. Unseasonably warm, up above 80 degrees, certainly not what I expected from a country that has constant cloud cover and shares latitudes with Canada.

Tuesday:  Another great service/prayer meeting. The main event was another BBC documentary, this one about the Bible's (and, by extension, God's) guiding hand on the past 400 years of history. It did a great job showing the breadth of impact that God's Word has had, but unfortunately displayed very little of the depth--this is an expected casualty of such a grand undertaking with only an hour's time to fill.

For me, the highlight of the night was actually the prayer segment. The veterans of the faith in Bethel Baptist speak to God with a frankness that I have yet to see anywhere else, and I felt almost out of place listening in on their conversation with our Creator. They embody Psalms 100:4, where it says to "[e]nter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise...." That's not yet an aspect of my spiritual life yet, to be able to cast a glance virtually anywhere and be able to Praise God for what He was wrought. My brothers and sisters at Bethel do this effortlessly, among many other things, and inspire me to do the same. This might be my favorite part about the country so far: not the castles, not the panoramic vistas from town walls, not the ornately crafted cathedrals, but what I have heard in the back room of an old chapel on a dead-end street in a small village.

I think I'm up to speed with myself now. I'm not sure I enjoy doing five days' worth of scouring my memory in one sitting. That should be motuvation enough to stay on top of this, but I will probably just end up writing as ideas and events come. Farewell for now! And to all the Welsh readers, hwyl!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Time flies when...

Can it be that four days have passed since I was on here??? Apparently so; it seems like the days are simply evaporating. So much has happened in this week, but even so I felt like I could have done more with it. Let's step in the Wayback Machine and travel to...

Monday, and the brief excursion to beautiful downtown Wrexham. I had the incredible privilege of spending the morning there, and wasted no time in seeing the whole city. Wrexham is a relatively nondescript place, about 65,000 strong, with no buildings above five stories save for the gleaming shopping center downtown and St. Giles' Church, whose 135-foot tower is one of the seven wonders of Wales. Naturally, I spent most of my morning at these two sites, starting with the circular, open-air mall called Eagle's Meadow. It's the first time I've seen something of that sort, and it would have been my favorite place were shopping on my list of hobbies. As it was, I didn't spend more than 15-20 minutes in any given store, and it was off to the winding side streets again.

There were a few other stores around town closing down, which speaks volumes about either the local economy or Wrexham's overall lack of appeal. The deals at these places were incredible, but there was nothing that I needed and the clothes were absolutely picked clean, making the task of finding anything for a 6'3" frame all the more impossible. I took a brief jaunt through the People's Market (read: flea market), but as soon as I opened my mouth vendors heard the distinctly American accent and started pushing every single product on me, so that wore out pretty quickly.

In the end, the most fun I had was simply walking through the streets of the town. Wrexham doesn't have the industrial, rundown look of cities like London, or the glitzy, glossed-over look of tourist-centric sites: it's just plain. The brick, the cobblestone walkways, the church bells pealing every fifteen minutes, the Victorian fronts on most buildings--this is a prototypical British town. Not a modern industrial force by any means, but not quite left behind to the point of decay. The cliche phrase "frozen in time" comes to mind, and it was a joy just to experience this at my own pace.

And of course, no typical British town would be complete without some history and an ornate cathedral. St. Giles' offered both of these. The church was built in 1495, and houses some of the most beautiful stained glass I have ever seen--including Westminster Abbey. However, my favorite part of the church is one of the most overlooked features in the building--a faded painting of the Last Judgment on one of the arches. In short, Peter is shown at the gates of heaven, directing lines of kings and bishops towards their final destination. However, hell's orange flame is still visible, whereas heaven has faded completely from the wall; therefore, all the churchgoers see when they stare at the vaulted ceiling is the path to hellfire. Granted, it's a black kind of humor, but I found it to be immensely entertaining.

I have yet to meet any Welsh people in Wrexham; the two couples in my tour group at the church were on holiday from England, and I met a lady in one of the department stores who was from Northern Ireland and ended up staying here. We got to talking about the area, and she snorted when I said I was enjoying my time in the city, which is not normally a good sign. She did say that the nightlife is where it's at though, so I'll be devoting a night or two to check that out in the near future.

Speaking of the future, the Wayback Machine can only do so much, so I'll do a quick recount of Tuesday and end this piece. Pretty uneventful day, but evening services at Bethel Baptist were a delight. It was a laid-back experience that consisted largely of watching the BBC documentary "When God Spoke English," a look at the creation and impact of the King James Bible. Incredible work, I recommend watching it for a number of reasons: it gives an in-depth look at what went into the undertaking of this masterpiece, demonstrates the superiority of the King James edition as far as aesthetics are concerned, offers a number of insights into the contemporary British view of religion and, most importantly, it's told from a relatively neutral standpoint. More on this in an adjacent blog soon, but I am retiring for now. The other half of the week should be up later tonight!

Stained-glass windows at St. Giles' Church, Wrexham

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Long-Awaited Arrival

Bethel Baptist Church, Llay, Wales

Well, we're here.

8 years and 11 months ago, God placed a call on my parents' lives, and I was merely along for the ride; no one knew where the end result would take us. It has been by no means a short trip, but here we are at the almost-final destination, a temporary home in Marchwiel, Wales, United Kingdom.

This was a trip made significantly longer by the flight to get here. If you would like to simulate a flight to Wales from the comfort of your own home, just sit in a chair 12 inches from your television screen for 8 hours, watch a very great movie (i.e., The Adjustment Bureau), a very underwhelming movie (i.e., Unknown), and just close your eyes for the last three turns of the hourglass. Oh, and then call your friendly local Customs agent and get them to ask you 25 questions about why you're staying in your current country.

But I'm not here to complain. Actually, that's all the complaining I can possibly do, as I've been given a tremendous opportunity. I am in this incredible country for just over four months before returning stateside to continue with life as I know it. My goal is to make the most of every day as my Lord would have me to do; I have some other goals of my own, but they will fall in line behind schooling, and helping with Dad's ministry and youth group as I can.

My first day was about as unproductive as possible, but I chalk that up to jet lag. My family and I flew in to Manchester at 8 in the morning on Saturday, got settled in, and I proceeded to sleep the afternoon and most of the evening away, interrupted only by dinner and a brief dose of a Britcom (surprisingly entertaining stuff) with our host pastor.

Today was a true highlight though. Services at Bethel Baptist Church this morning were a delight in a foreign sort of way. The hymns were unfamiliar and I probably sounded laughable trying to stumble through them, but they were refreshing ways to worship the same God written about in the rest of the hymnal. The chapel we will be working in is smaller than most youth rooms I've visited, but every person that was there genuinely loves the things of God, which is more than can be said for some churches in the States. The youth group of one is a tad disheartening, but there is a lot of potential to be had in that one, and that number can only go up. A fellowship with tea and biscuits (cookies in American-speak) after evening service is a new one on me, but I can definitely get used to it, and it was a great way to meet the church faithful--Victor, Catherine, Vivienne, Megan, Rhys, and those select few whose names I am forgetting right now. Each of them was a blessing to me today.

A view from the back row at Bethel, about 20 feet from the pulpit

That's pretty much all I have to say so far. I have been here long enough to know that the food is strikingly different (but not bad at all), and the culture and language are worlds apart, probably enough so that I could subdivide those two aspects into separate blogs. But those are considerations for another day. I am up past midnight typing this because my mind still thinks it is around 7:30 p.m.--cursed jet lag. I'm going to try to get some sleep, tomorrow morning's schedule inolves a trip to the city of Wrexham, an architectural mix of old and new with which I fell in love this afternoon. A good night to all.

Postscript: Thanks to my friend Kaitlin, who suggested the idea of documenting my time over here on the interweb. I had been toying with the idea for a while, but hearing the idea steeled my resolve to go ahead and do it.